BlackBerry’s Gareth Hurn Chats About Fan Pick, The BlackBerry Passport

A short time ago, we had a poll here on UTB asking our users to “Pick Your Favorite Berry”. We ran the various BlackBerry 10 devices, as well as the PRIV by BlackBerry, against each other asking which BlackBerry was the favored device. There was a clear winner. The Passport won in a landslide victory. I’m not surprised by the results of the poll, but looking back on it, it is rather odd that this device has had such an impact on our community of BlackBerry fans.

Most of us here have been using BlackBerry’s for many years. We think back fondly to our Bolds and Curves and Torches and Pearls and even the Storm. The Q5, Q10, and Classic are obviously the natural evolution of the BlackBerry legacy. The Z10, Z30 and Leap are the full touch devices that so many had been asking for. The PRIV brings Android and the Google Play Store to the secure and efficient world of BlackBerry. Yet the Passport is what has stolen the collective heart of our community. The Passport, that is like nothing else that has come before, and is still unlike anything else on the market. Who would have thought that a device so different, so… odd, would end up being the powerhouse that it is? The answer is simple. BlackBerry would. Only BlackBerry would.

There were still some questions I had about the Passport. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with someone that could answer those questions for me. I spoke with Gareth Hurn, Global Head of Device Portfolio Planning at BlackBerry. Gareth was involved in the creation of the Passport from conception to launch. He is quick to point out that he was part of a larger team of great people who were ultimately responsible for the creation. Throughout my conversation with Gareth, there were two recurring themes that kept popping up. Innovation, and solving problems. This should come as no surprise to BlackBerry fans.

In today’s smartphone market, we seem to see an industry that informs the customer of what they want. Indeed, we see many user complaints go unanswered by manufacturers. Quests for better battery life and a stable OS go ignored while new gimmicks are added that, quite simply, were never asked for. Gareth mentioned in passing that the Passport was created to solve the problems of a particular customer segment. I asked Gareth, what is it BlackBerry looks at when designing the next BlackBerry device?

PassportLE

“Customer needs, market trends and try to align with innovation opportunities we’ve got in the pipeline, that solve particular problems, and in the Passport’s case, a few things clicked.

We already had Q10 – and Classic in the works – for people who wanted the keyboard with portability, but we saw a market of professionals that wanted an optimized screen for viewing, editing, even creating content. They wanted to be productive while mobile and needed accurate input, with the physical keyboard, but they needed a larger screen. They didn’t want to compromise one for the other. We also had this really exciting concept of the capacitive touch physical keyboard, and we were looking for the right product to introduce this. We found something with Passport, where it was kind of a sweet spot where the device was innovative yet pocketable. The Passport became the result of solving problems and trying to create some innovation as well as complementing the existing product line.”

The Passport truly is an innovative product. The phone that could be the laptop replacement for many, was like nothing else we had ever seen. The oddly-shaped phone with the giant square screen and physical keyboard, while every other flagship device was a slab all-touch phone, which primarily differed in screen size and the curvature of the corners. The wide screen was not simply a gimmick. It allowed the BlackBerry user to “work wide” which was more than slogan. Suddenly, we found that working on documents, browsing the web, even reading, was as pleasurable on mobile as it was on our laptops. The ability to work wide, with the formatting on the screen much like what we would find on our computer, has made the best mobile experience, simply the best experience.

The Passport keyboard is simply amazing. From the autocorrect which has, I’m sure, saved most of us from countless embarrassing typos, to the ability to swipe entire sentences. My Passport keyboard knows me – sometimes I think better than I know myself. I still find myself shocked at how well my keyboard knows what I’m going to say next. I find when I’m reading documents, or long articles on websites, it’s very much more comfortable to turn the phone on its side and use the keyboard to scroll as I read. The three row keyboard, with its virtual fourth row was something I initially thought, well, nothing positive about.

I recall when the first images of the pre-production devices first hit the web, how shocked I was. “What are they thinking?” was a near constant chant. For the life of me, I could not imagine typing on a three row keyboard. The placement of the space key befuddled me. Once I started using it, I realized just how wrong I was. I’ll be honest, there was a bit of a learning curve, but even that was not what I thought it would be. The space bar was never a problem. The virtual fourth row was not a problem. In fact, my only issue was constantly hitting the “Z” key attempting to hit the shift or alt key. That was simply muscle memory. Now, after some time utilizing the Passport, I wish all keyboards were three row. I’m truly faster and more accurate with three row. Where did the three row concept come from? What made BlackBerry take a step away from the iconic four row standard BlackBerry keyboard?

BlackBerry Passport
BlackBerry Passport

Gareth explains, “What we found was when we added the fourth row, it just affected the balance. Something just didn’t feel quite right. We found that we could place some of the less-used functions like the symbols and the numbers to a fourth virtual row. It allowed us to try something a little bit different while maintaining some of the key elements of BlackBerry DNA, like the keyboard, frets or the frame. I don’t think it took too long for people to get used to it.”

It wasn’t math. It wasn’t science. It wasn’t due to limitations on a new technology. It was BlackBerry just getting it right. When speaking of BlackBerry hardware, this is the expectation, and BlackBerry continues to deliver. Gareth went on to answer my “what were they thinking?” comment, saying:

“The Passport wasn’t designed for everyone. It was designed for the way certain professionals use a device. I guess that’s just what you expect when you do something that goes against the status quo. Once you use the device you begin to realize just how much more productive you can be once mobile.”

He went on to remind me how I had expressed my love of the device just moments before. He was right. All my doubts and fears about the design of the Passport vanished instantly the first time I saw an image of it in someone’s hand. And the moment I saw my first Passport in person, I knew I had to have one.

By now we all know that the Passport did not break any sales records. It didn’t come bursting on to the scene and take over the smartphone market. I wish it would have. I think it should have. But at the time of the Passport’s initial release, it wasn’t a market where a BlackBerry device would have been able to do that. Regardless of that, the Passport became the go-to device of the BlackBerry community, and it’s still selling today. I don’t recall a BlackBerry phone having so many different versions. Sure, there have been phones released in multiple colors before, I really wasn’t shocked about the white and red Passports, but the Silver Edition?

“When it came to the SE it really came down to trying to create something a little more premium in terms of construction and quality of materials.” And that they did.

Passport SE
Passport SE

The original Passport in black with its four square corners is an absolutely beautiful device. The Silver Edition takes that beautiful device and makes it a luxury device. From metal body, to the speaker grille holes, to that amazing redesigned camera housing on the back, the Silver Edition can’t be missed.

And what of the AT&T edition? The Passport sitting beside me as I write this post, with the four rounded corners and the silver band that runs completely around it harkening back to the legendary BlackBerry Bold?

“They [AT&T] really loved the concept of the Passport, but they felt rounded corners would help the feeling in users’ hands, and they felt that with the base of customers they had, that it would be an easier trade up for their customers. AT&T is an important customer so we decided to do it, and it added another dimension to the Passport story,” Gareth explained.

AT&T Edition Passport
AT&T Edition Passport

Gareth is obviously proud of the Passport. He told me a story of a customer, the head of a large organization, that told him that the Passport was a work of art, that it belonged in a gallery. I tend to agree. This week we saw the legendary BlackBerry 6210 named as one of Time’s 50 most influential gadgets. I believe someday we shall see the Passport show up in that list. Gareth should be proud of the role he played in the creation of the Passport. I’m proud to own one.

“It’s something I feel is just a little different in a market where so many products look the same and act in the same way.”

That, I think, is quite the understatement. It’s something very different. Gareth stated early in the conversation that they knew the Passport would be polarizing. I think we saw that very early on. We saw reviewers, who were used to the status quo, downplay the device and that’s putting it politely. We saw users of other platforms guffaw at BlackBerry’s newest offering. But we used it, and we fell in love with it. We’ve seen many users move on to newer devices from various manufacturers, only to come rushing back when they realized that they could not give up what the Passport offered. To this day, my Passport still outperforms every other phone from any other manufacturer I compare it to.

Designed to innovate and solve problems, the Passport did just that, bringing a whole new level of productivity and efficiency to the mobile landscape. But what of the future?

“We have some real exciting concepts for the future that will address different problems in different ways,” Gareth hints.

Imagine that – designing innovative products to address user’s problems! Well, that’s just the BlackBerry way.

Brad

BlackBerry Elite
Founder & Owner of UTB Blogs and UTB Geek.
When I’m not talking or writing about BlackBerry, you’ll find me using my BlackBerry.

  • E

    ::hugs Passport just a little tighter:: I loved reading about the way this phone was developed. It seems made to break the boundaries, and it feels good knowing that it was a work of art for consumers. BlackBerry really gave us something most of us didn’t realize we needed! I love this little workhorse all the more for seeing the care and thought that went into its creation. Thank for sharing, UTB!

  • Anthony

    What about information about the next generation Passport?

    Your article talks about hardware like the OS doesn’t factor into why the Passport is great. I’ve demoed Android many times and I still don’t like it. A next generation Passport running Android would be a nightmare! locco_smiley_6

    • Brad

      I didn’t ask about the OS because the Passport we know and love is BB10, and the same BB10 as on other BB10 devices. I was more interested about what went in to the design of the Passport, as this was truly out of the box thinking.

      The strategy behind devices, answering the issues of users, is awesome, and something which I would bet only BlackBerry is doing in the mobile landscape right now.

      As for future? As he said “We have some real exciting concepts for the future that will address different problems in different ways,” and BlackBerry will make these public when they’re ready. :)

  • fahedalderbi

    Thanks Brad after 2 years BlackBerry Passport still shining, glorious and masterpiece in smartphones world despite unfair wars from carriers and developers

  • Excellent article, Brad! Nice to get a little insider information on the train of thought behind the design process that resulted in what is possibly the most innovative smartphone of at least the last 3 years!

    I’m lucky enough to be the (extremely) proud owner of a Limited Edition Passport (21/50 – mine’s the one pictured in the article!), and it is easily the best smartphone I’ve ever owned! There are so many aspects of it that get pretty close to perfection – the size and clarity of the screen, the *truly* innovative keyboard, the sound from speakers… and that doesn’t even consider how well-designed the BB10 OS is! I love owning and using the Passport – I don’t plan on replacing it until it literally falls apart from overuse!

    Thanks again to Brad for this article – and to BlackBerry for creating such an amazing device!

  • razrrob

    This is exactly what I love about BlackBerry,
    they don’t tell me what I want,
    they design what I need!

  • Canuckvoip

    Wow!
    Many thanks to Gareth Hurn for taking the time to give us all an insight to the thoughts behind the production of the Passport.
    That “head of a large corporation” is right. It IS a work of art!
    Congrats Mr. Hurn for creating a killer device.
    All I can ask is that you do it again.

    • Brad

      Many many thanks to Gareth!

  • Jope28

    Nice piece.

    I honestly abuse my AT&T Passport in terms of how many hours a day it’s being actively used. If the screen has a limit of lifespan in terms of display being on, I might be reaching it lol.

    I need two SIM cards for different reasons and going from a 9900/Q10 combo to a Passport/Q10 combo has made it possible to eliminate carrying the playbook and not need to drag my laptop along quite as much as I used to.

    My Q10 screen recently started to show some permanent altered color on 20% of the display.
    Am weighing 3 options since I need a second device to go along with my AT&T Passport:
    *buy a screen replacement
    *get a Classic or another Q10
    *or get the Passport SE which means I’d be carrying two Passports lol

    Make BlackBerry great again. The ‘Not Android’ movement lol.

  • bartron

    Great article. The Passport is still THE king of smartphones. It’s absolutely brilliant, and one of the most innovative phones ever.

    BlackBerry deserves tons of credit for having the courage and confidence to release such an innovative and daring design, especially given the state of the company and the hardware unit at the time.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing what they have in the works.

  • iMasterus

    Well, I agree that BlackBerry Passport is a truly innovative device! I myself half-migrated from iPhone to BlackBerry Passport Silver Edition. But, there is one thing I really don’t like about BlackBerry. It is the build quality of the BlackBerry Passport that really upsets me. I don’t even mention future support of the BB10, which seems problematic as of now. We don’t have to even think about new BB10 devices…

    • Brad

      Build quality? On the SE? Sorry, I can’t agree with you in the least.

    • bartron

      What’s wrong with the build quality of the Passport?

  • vorpal

    Three cheers for the SquareBerry!

  • bartron

    The Passport is a multimedia powerhouse. A few months ago, I was at a relative’s house, where I got their Sonos system to play music stored on my Passport while I was streaming a movie from my Passport to their TV, and responding to emails and browsing the Web on that same Passport. The Passport didn’t slow down one bit. It felt just as responsive as when I have no apps running at all.

    And it’s better for music than the iPhone. Check out this post from last year: http://utbblogs.com/heres-why-the-passport-is-better-for-music-than-the-iphone/

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