BlackBerry Ltd.’s new Android phone hit the market through AT&T on November 6, 2015, and could be the company’s last attempt at making its devices profitable before ending production.
The Canadian company has unveiled several new phones in the two years since Chief Executive Officer John Chen took over, but none has managed to stop hardware sales from falling. Chen has repeatedly said he will exit the device business if he can’t make it profitable.
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The BlackBerry “Priv” -- named for its emphasis on privacy -- runs a full version of Google’s Android operating system but features some of BlackBerry’s highly respected security and productivity features. It comes preloaded with an application that tracks how much other applications on your phone are accessing your personal data and location. It also has BlackBerry’s signature physical keyboard, which slides down from under the touch screen.
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Brian Colello, a Chicago-based analyst at Morningstar Investment Services, said in an interview.
“Perhaps there’s something else in the pipeline, but this device does seem like a last stand. We’ve seen new products come out for the last couple years, BlackBerry’s trying to get a hit with any form factor, any price point and now it’s with a different operating system.”
With its share of the global smartphone market at less than 1 percent, BlackBerry has been working to shift its focus to higher-margin software sales. As he tries to turn around the company’s fortunes, Chen has held onto the phone business, which still accounts for about 40 percent of revenue. Blackberry could stop producing phones within the next year if it doesn’t begin turning a profit, he said at a conference in October.
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Chen is working to reach $500 million in software revenue by March 2016 by acquiring security-focused software companies and building up new products like secure teleconferencing. BlackBerry completed its $425 million acquisition of Good Technology Corp. on Monday, a deal the company said will contribute about $160 million in revenue in the first year.
Ron Louks, BlackBerry’s head of devices, said the company will make announcements about its product “road map” in the beginning of 2016, but declined to say whether it would announce a new phone. Chen has said the company is going ahead with software updates to its BlackBerry operating system.
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By running Android for its new device, the Priv sidesteps one of the biggest problems BlackBerry has had in persuading people to use its phones: a lack of applications. As the company’s operating system waned in popularity, developers stopped making applications that were compatible with it, prompting even more people to ditch its devices.
If the Priv sells better than BlackBerry’s two most recent major releases, the Passport and the Classic, it may keep the phone business going, Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Financial LP, said in an interview.
BlackBerry shipped 800,000 smartphones in the quarter that ended Aug. 29, its lowest since at least 2007.
Gillis, who has a buy rating on the stock, said.
“It doesn’t take a lot of phones to really move the needle for this company.”
The company’s shares gained 2.9 percent to $7.50 at the close in New York and have declined 32 percent this year.
The Priv, with a retail price of $699, is targeted at a “very, very competitive market,” of high-end Android phones, Colello said, including those made by HTC Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. The new device is BlackBerry’s latest effort to find a phone that can stabilize sales as the company transitions toward Chen’s software revenue target. He said.
“They’ve done a good job of continuing to lower their break-even level for the hardware side to stay in business, but even though the bar’s going lower and lower, the sales still aren’t keeping up. I think BlackBerry’s still searching for a hit phone.”
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Cellular Network Support, Prices, and Pre-Order Details For The BlackBerry Priv
AT&T is the currently the only U.S. cellular carrier offering BlackBerry's Priv smartphone. Customers can purchase the phone for $250.00 with a two-year contract or via AT&T Next with $0 down. You have your choice of the following contracts:
- Next 24 (30 payments) for $24.67 per month.
- Next 18 (24 payments) for $30.84 per month.
- Next 12 (20 payments) for $37.00 per month.
Both T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon are in negotiations to offer the BlackBerry Priv through their cellular networks, but no definite dates have been released. T-Mobile CEO John Legere told CNET that BlackBerry is "on a comeback" and hinted that the Uncarrier will have the Priv soon.
The comment on BlackBerry's comeback is just one in a growing collection of comments by Legere on BlackBerry. In an interview with Fox Business News anchor Liz Claman, Legere said that John Chen is doing a "great job running BlackBerry," and T-Mobile is "trying to figure out how to get to groups of zealots -- T-Mobile fans and BlackBerry fans -- how to get those two together.
T-Mobile confirmed that that talks are happening, and suggested a 2016 release date is probable. T-Mobile's network already works on the BlackBerry Priv, if the phone is unlocked.
The phone sold through the BlackBerry Store is designed to work with GSM cellular networks, but a CDMA-compatible is coming to Verizon soon. Verizon tweeted confirmation on November 6, and directed those interested to sign-up on its website for more information. No release timeframe was offered.
BlackBerry will also make the Priv available internationally as follows:
- Canada - Rogers (Pre-Orders) and ShopBlackBerry Canada ($900 CDN)
- United Kingdom - Carphone Warehouse and ShopBlackBerry UK (560 Pounds including VAT)
Marshmellow and Security Updates
In a recent interview with Android Central, Ron Louks, BlackBerry's president of devices, commented on the upcoming update to Android Marshmellow 6.0 and monthly security updates. Louks didn't give a firm date for Marshmellow 6.0, but said the update should hit "sometime in the new year," at least confirming that BlackBerry Priv users will not have to wait long for it.
BlackBerry's added improvements to Android that will attract enterprise users who seek data encryption and built-in security features that track how apps are interacting with your data (Click Image To Enlarge)
BlackBerry has done really solid work adding a layer of security to the Priv — "Priv" stands for "privacy," after all. The user-facing aspect of it is a piece of software called DTEK security, which monitors your phone for nefarious acts and also gives you a handy security audit that lets you know what's going on inside each one. The Priv isn't running the most recent version of Android, but it has the same ability to let you examine each app's access to your privacy settings and turn them off if you don't like them.
On security updates, Louks said BlackBerry will try to adhere -- at least in Europe -- to pushing security updates within a month of Google releasing them. As more malware and vulnerabilities hit Android, manufacturers are being called upon to quickly update devices and make sure users are safe and secure. BlackBerry will import its own security systems as well, to ensure vulnerabilities are mitigated before Google patches them.
BlackBerry has gone all-out with the Priv Android phone, so the specs are about as high-end as any other flagship Android phone -- Unfortunately, the Priv also has a high price tag to match. The phone has an intriguing slider design, the likes of which we haven't seen in a number of years, so that users can choose between a virtual keyboard or a physical keyboard. When you slide the screen back, a full QWERTY keyboard in the old school BlackBerry style is revealed. The keys are touch sensitive for scrolling and cursor control, too, so you can use it as a trackpad if need be.
GSMArena created this wonderful breakdown of the BlackBerry Priv's technical specifications:
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BlackBerry's New Android Apps
When it comes to software, BlackBerry's added a few bells and whistles to make Android secure enough to suit its standards. The BlackBerry Hub is included, which brings all your messages into one feed, as are other standard BlackBerry apps like BBM. BlackBerry's special DTEK for Android software will also alert you when your privacy may be at risk, give you a security rating for your device, and it offers for specific security features, so that you know what's going on with your personal info and more. You can determine which apps and services are allowed to use your microphone, camera, contacts, and more.
BlackBerry released a range of apps onto Google Play store in late October. The apps will be pre-installed on the BlackBerry Priv, and are apparently only usable on that device. Users that tried to download the apps were informed that their devices are incompatible.
The apps include BlackBerry Launcher, Keyboard, Camera and Services. Password Keeper has been added to store all passwords in a single folder, encrypted and secured by BlackBerry -- the app can also import infor from previous BlackBerry owners moving to Android. DTEK for BlackBerry and MicrosoftextFat for BlackBerry have also been added to the Google Play store.
Having all the applications available on the Google Play store should make them instantly available without a firmware update. BlackBerry plans to offer an almost stock experience, with additional security and some new applications ported over from BlackBerry 10.
BlackBerry "Old-Style" Keyboard
A lot of mobile device experts don't give the BlackBerry Priv a chance of succeeding among smartphone users or making a dent in the smartphone market, because its debut comes four years too late. However, I believe that the Priv will be able to capture market share because there is a latent demand for smartphones with old-style features like a physical keyboard.
Although the BlackBerry Priv may look "old-school," a physical keyboard fills a need in the marketplace. The limitations of a virtual keyboard on tablets like the iPad, quickly gave rise to attachable physical keyboards, and now they are a must-have accessory for most serious tablet users. It is my opinion that the Priv's physical keyboard is going to be a hit with users, especially old-school users like yours truly.
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BlackBerry's keyboard is truly special, incorporating fresh ideas that most smartphone makers ignore:
- The keyboard software is optimized for the keyboard — no mean feat, given how few Android phones have bothered with them anymore.
- The keyboard is also touch-sensitive, so you can scroll with it and swipe down on it to bring up an optional symbols keyboard.
- The keyboard does not make the Priv top-heavy or ackward to hold or use.
You are probably not going to be any faster or more accurate using the Priv's physical keyboard than you are on a touchscreen virtual keyboard, but it isn't about what's definitively "better." Because after you reach a certain level of quality and functionality, it's perfectly fine just to have personal preference. Live and let live.
I believe that enterprise and government users will like and value the BlackBerry Priv's security and data encryption features. These are must-have features for corporate users, government agencies and individuals who want that extra layer of security not found in most of today's smartphones.
Multi-Tasking On The Priv
One change that I love on the Priv is the layout for multitasking. Instead of showing a vertical stack of cards, BlackBerry designed multitasking to show a grid of apps in varying sizes. Think of it like the Windows 8 Start menu for apps you already have open. Hitting the multitasking button and then thumbing through the list of apps on the keyboard’s touchpad feels like magic. Compared to the stacked card interfaces of Android Lollipop and Marshmallow and iOS 9, Blackberry’s implementation is a breath of fresh air. You can see more than one app with its preview clearly. It’s one of the biggest things I’ll miss when the Priv goes away.
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BlackBerry Priv Reviews
BlackBerry Priv reviews by expert reviewers are mostly good averaging about 3.5 stars out of 5. The Priv is regarded as a good phone, not a great phone, but a "great first effort for an Android phone." The $699.00 price tag may scare off a lot of potential buyers, but with a two-year plan through AT&T, the price is only $250.00. According to Ron Offringa, Droid-Life, ere are the good and bad of the Priv:
Display - The 5.4-inch (1440 x 2560 pixels) display on the Priv is visually great. Colors are accurate, text is crisp, and the curve along the edge of the display makes Android’s slide out menus feel more real. The display is able to get very dim, but I have definitely seen displays that get brighter, meaning you may have some issues in direct sunlight.
Hardware Design - The Priv feels like a tank. A plastic tank, but a tank nonetheless. That’s not a bad thing, but don’t expect the Priv to delicately slide into your pocket. The body looks downright handsome in its stealth black paint. Where other phones look delicate with their bendable aluminum bodies and glass backs, the Priv feels like a solid, well constructed pocket computer. The body of the Priv is curved to match the sloping glass on the front, but the middle edges are flat so that the phone is easy to grip. The power on/off button is on the left instead of the right, but that's no big deal. The bottom of the phone has a micro USB port at the center and the headphone jack on the right. The placement of the headphone jack makes it relatively easy to find with a cursory brush against the bottom of the device. The top of the phone features a micro SD card tray and the SIM tray. For whatever reason the SIM card should've been placed on the bottom of the tray (facing the back of the phone) instead of on the top. This isn’t a big deal, but it is an odd design that was confusing at first.
The Keyboard - The slider keyboard on the Priv is probably the single best thing about it. Can you type faster on a virtual keyboard? Probably not, but if you have never used a phone with a hardware keyboard then it might take you longer to adjust, but after using the Priv keyboard a few times, you will feel right at home. The keyboard is touch-sensitive and can be used as a trackpad for scrolling by brushing your fingers on the keyboard. Finally, as long as you’re using the stock launcher, you can also set shortcut keys for individual presses or long presses on the keyboard.
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The Software - The Priv runs an almost stock version of Android 5.1.1 (that’s right, no Marshmallow 6.0 Android on the most secure phone in the world), but CEO Chen says "they are working on it (getting Marshmallow upgrade) sometime in 2016." Here are a few changes to note. Notifications can be bundled by app, so if you have a ton of new notifications, but you really just want to see your emails you can tap on your email app icon and only see those in the notification shade. BlackBerry includes a Peek menu on the edge of the display to quickly see your calendar, favorite contacts, messages from BlackBerry Hub, and tasks. BlackBerry Hub is an app that summarizes your communications for you. All of your emails and texts and calls and even social media bits can be found in one place. I can see this being really helpful for someone who either needs or wants a summary of their day regularly or who wants a notification center to go to because they find the notification tray too limited or lacking context.
Device Search is a limited replacement for Google Now that allows you to search your device or, if you don’t find what you want, you can tap a button to search the web or Drive or any other app listed under Extended Search. When you’re on the home screen if you start typing on the keyboard it will ask if you’d like to use Device Search or Google Now. I haven't tried Device Search, but I use Google Now all the time, and like it very much.
Multitasking (See above) on the BlackBerry Priv is a breeze and one of the changes that users love is the layout for multitasking. Instead of showing a vertical stack of cards, BlackBerry designed multitasking to show a grid of apps in varying sizes. Think of it like the Windows 8 Start menu for apps you already have open. Hitting the multitasking button and then thumbing through the list of apps on the keyboard’s touchpad feels like magic.
Security and Privacy - The first, and most important, is that the Priv lacks a fingerprint scanner like high-end phones like the iPhone, Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, HTC One A9, Galaxy S6, and Note 5.
The second is that DTEK (See Above) thinks it’s secure for me to have a password or PIN that locks my device after 10 minutes. BlackBerry should not be giving that default setting a passing score. I also love that DTEK has a section that says that my device is secure because it is a BlackBerry.
The third is that the Priv runs Android 5.1.1. While this shouldn’t be too upsetting for users considering Marshmallow is only just over a month old, from a security standpoint it is a bit of an issue. Maybe BlackBerry will be quick with updates, but there’s a good chance that unless BlackBerry picks up the pace the OS itself will become a security issue.
NOTE: In my opinion, Ron Offringa from Droid-Life either does not understand the Priv's security features, or didn't want to dwelve too deeply into the Priv's security capabilities. For these reasons, I differ with the security review of Ron Offringa from Droid-Life.
If you wonder just how secure the BlackBerry Priv really is, well, it's very secure. For starters, the Priv uses data encryption technology and its security software works like an internal "firewall" that operates in the background and monitors for malware and mobile app spyware that might want to tamper with your program files and data. If it senses this, it will notify you immediately to take appropriate action.
And there's much more than meets the eye centered specifically around security and stability.
What about fingerprint readers? Apple does them. Google does them. Samsung does them. Why doesn’t BlackBerry? Dave Kleidermacher, BlackBerry’s chief security officer, said.
“User authentication is a freakin’ nightmare in the mobile world today. There is not yet a widespread and ubiquitous user authentication mechanism that is both strong for security and users don’t hate it."
Kleidermacer explains why the Priv does not come with a fingerprint scanner.
“The reason we haven’t put a fingerprint scanner is that if you lose your fingerprint, you’ve lost that part of your identity forever. And that’s a problem, because it’s a static picture of your finger. It’s just bits. You drop those bits, and you’re done. We’ve never put a fingerprint scanner on our devices because we think of it as a relatively weak authentication system.”
Kleidermacher argued that, if implemented poorly, it’s easy to steal those bits off of a device, or even lift the fingerprint off the actual device and use that to log into it. In short, he believes that using your fingerprint as your identity is flawed from the get-go, because it doesn’t change. Other types of biometrics, where the “password” isn’t just a static image, but rather something that is moving or changing, while still being unique to you, are “much better.”
He elaborated further.
“I’m not saying biometrics are a bad idea. I’m saying that today, in terms of what’s available in the market ubiquitously, there is not yet one that I’ve seen that passes our muster from a security and stability perspective.”
Indeed, Kleidermacher refused to declare that BlackBerry would never include a fingerprint reader in a future device. He said that relying on a combination of a fingerprint and something else might be a reasonable tradeoff, adding that “eyepanning” technology shows tremendous promise.
“We are constantly evaluating biometrics in general, and when we feel satisfied that the security strengths, cost, and usability are in a sweet spot, then we would consider putting them into devices. When that will happen, and exactly what type of biometric, remains to be seen still.”
Translation: Don’t be surprised if a BlackBerry Android phone next year has some sort of biometric solution.
So, what exactly has BlackBerry added to the Priv that isn’t available in Lollipop out of the box? Quite a bit.
There’s the aforementioned DTEK and picture passwords, as well as a Password Keeper app and media card protection. FIPS 140-2 compliant full disk encryption is on by default, and you get the S/MIME encryption protocol for digitally signing and/or encrypting messages, and of course doubly encrypted messages via BBM (though you can install BBM yourself on any Android device, assuming you still have someone to message on it).
But there are three improvements that particularly stand out on the Priv:
- Secure compound, a special BlackBerry area of firmware that runs below Android (making it immune to Android vulnerabilities) and handles operations such as validating the integrity of the Android OS itself
- Verified Boot and Secure Bootchain, which uses the embedded keys to verify every layer of the device in order to make sure they haven’t been tampered with
- Modifications to harden the Linux kernel with patches and configuration changes to improve security
The first two points we discussed earlier: These are the two that were impossible to pull off before Lollipop came along. For the third, Kleidermacher explained that BlackBerry has made “literally thousands of changes to both the Linux kernel below Android and to Android itself for security and privacy.” Of course, if Android 6.0 was the base, the company wouldn’t have had to include as many patches.
But there’s more than just software fixes here. Back in February 2009, BlackBerry acquired cryptography company Certicom. Ever since, BlackBerry has injected security keys into its chipsets to guarantee the “hardware root of trust.” This is a big sell to corporations, according to Kleidermacher.
“How do I know that the hardware key, that the hardware root of trust, hasn’t been tampered with during the supply chain? You can’t test this with Fibs certification. So we don’t really care where the device is being manufactured, the chipset and the injection is controlled by BlackBerry and our Certicom technology. That can give users and businesses a very high level of confidence that the root of trust for all crypto (encryption, integrity validation, and application-level security policies) is rooted in something that is truly BlackBerry secure.”
This is where it becomes very clear that BlackBerry will be selling the Priv to die-hard BlackBerry fans, sure, but it will be mainly selling it to corporations. The Priv is meant to be Android plus BlackBerry, the best of the consumer and business worlds.
I know this has been an lengthy explanation for why I differ with Mr. Offringa's poor review of the Priv's security. Having said this, it is my opinion that the Priv's security is the real strength of this phone, and why security should be rated as one of its best features. Heads of IT and enterprise users are going to love the security features of the Priv, but I think that regular users concerned with mobile app spyware and malware will love the Priv as well. Security should be everybody's concern, so BlackBerry must communicate its security strengths when it markets the phone. Execution will be everything.
Performance - Performance on the Priv is great. Between the Snapdragon 808 and the 3 GB of RAM apps launched quickly, ran well, and stayed in memory for plenty of time. The device does run hot when under the stress of a game (which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering this year’s Snapdragons) and battery life definitely takes a hit. That being said, the Priv took everything thrown at it with aplomb. For whatever it's worth, I have the Snapdragon 800 on my non-BlackBerry smartphone, and it screams, plays video without any interruptions and the heating issue is hardly noticeable.
Audio - The front facing speaker on the Priv is great to see. It’s not a Boom Sound speaker or anything, but it’s plenty loud for speakerphone calls or listening to music in an otherwise quiet room. I put The Beach Boys on while washing dishes and I could hear Brian and the gang perfectly well. I do wish the volume got louder with headphones, though. With headphones the audio is certainly audible, but my iPhone and the Galaxies are able to get several clicks louder.
Pricing and Availability - The BlackBerry Priv is available right now at AT&T for $24.67 per month on a payment plan or $249.99 on a 2-year contract. BlackBerry's CEO says the company is now negotiating with T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint to carry the Priv, but not likely to become available through those carriers until Q1 2016. You can also buy the Priv directly from BlackBerry for $699.99. The model from BlackBerry will work with AT&T or T-Mobile. This isn’t the best availability we’ve seen on a phone at launch. I’m also not a huge fan of the pricing, but remember most top tier phones have been within $50 of this price point until very recently.
Battery Life - According to Droid-Life, battery life on the Priv was less than stellar. The same deficiency was reported by The Verge, CNET, Engadget and Android Authority. TechAdvisor gave the battery good marks for longevity, but they didn't use the phone for watching videos or playing games. Like most of the phones reviewed this year, fast charging is a nice workaround for low battery life. However, you need a fast charger which costs extra. The Priv is equipped with a very decent sized battery in it. On Ron Offringa's first full day with the phone the battery lasted until 3:30 PM when it was around 10%. Better results are expected of a phone whose manufacturer claims the battery can last up to 22 hours.
I never trust the claims of the manufacturer when it comes to battery life. They tend to exaggerate. How long the battery will last before requiring a charge depends on how you are using the phone. If you view a lot of online videos and play games, those activities are very processor and battery intensive, and this will drain a battery twice as fast. On the other hand, if you are just sending and receiving emails, texting, making or receiving calls, and visiting your social networks, and dont't view a lot of videos or play games, you could conceivably get 10-12 hours of usage.
A lot of these reviewers did not operate their Privs at different types of activity and intensity of usage. In my opinion, batteries should be tested for light use, medium use and heavy use (includes watching videos and playing games). I have a feeling that those 22 hours were based on very light usage.
Camera - The front facing camera on the Priv is good in bright light. In anything other than bright conditions you’re going to want someone else to take your selfies for you unless you love blue/green hazes over your photos. The fact that BlackBerry shipped a front facing camera this bad in 2015 just goes to show how little they care or know about what people want in a smartphone.
The rear facing camera on the Priv takes good shots. Pictures are sharp and clear, and colors are bright and true. The dynamic range was surprisingly good in shots where the light differed and it performs well enough in low light situations. That led to an experience a bit more akin to shooting with an actual camera and I felt like I was able to stabilize the shot better than I can if I have to push in a volume button or peck at the screen.
The frustrating and ultimately disappointing part about the camera is that it is downright slow. It takes about a full second for the shutter to activate after you press the take picture button.
Here again, I beg to differ with Ron Offringa's bad review of the Priv's camera's. Most of the Priv's pictures will be taken with the 18-mega pixel rear-facing camera. As you can see from the above, the pictures are just fantastic. I think Ron's criticism of the front-facing camera is way over the top. I would've given the Priv a good grade for its phoos. Shame on Ron for being so centered on selfies. Kind of tells you what this narcistic reviewer does with his smartphone camera.
The Priv features a lot of really good software ideas with interesting hardware, particularly with its security and stability, but the lackluster battery life and poor camera performance make it hard to recommend to anyone but the biggest keyboard nerd. If you don’t use your phone to take a lot of pictures and you don’t mind having to charge your phone then the Priv is worth looking at. This is heartbreaking to write because the Priv does so much so well and, most importantly, actually offers something you can’t get on any other Android phone.
It's apparent that Ron places far too much emphasis on battery life and the camera. Exactly what I thought he would do. Ron entirely misses the point of the Priv. This is not a phone targeted to Ron's Millennial generation. It is targeted at older Generation X, younger boomers, corporations, SMB owners, and former BlackBerry users who appreciate quality construction, a "built like a tank" smartphone, with unbreakable security, a physical keyboard, good rear-facing camera and accessibility to the Android ecosystem. If they want selfies, they will ask someone to take them using the rear-facing camera. If you want to make egg over the battery life, I can show you several instances, where even the iPhone and Galaxy phones can suck up a battery dry in no time at all. As a Boomer, I don't get all bent out of shape if my phone sucks up juice. I get a better battery, kill apps running in the background that I don't need, watch videos on my laptop, and drop the brightness of the display a bit. That's what I do with my ZTE ZMAX smartphone, and this works for me. It's been a long 15-hour day, and my ZTE ZMAX is telling me I have 80% power still available. Battery no problem. My grade 4.0 out of 5 stars. If you don't like me review, sue me.
Courtesy of an article dated November 2, 2015 appearing in Bloomberg, an article dated November 9, 2015 appearing in The Verge, an article dated November 6, 2015 appearing in VentureBeat, an article dated November 25, 2015 appearing in Droid-Life, an article dated November 17, 2015 appearing in Digital Trends, an article dated November 18, 2015 appearing in International Business News, an article dated November 17, 2015 appearing in ValueWalk