BY NATASHA LOMAS
You wait ages for the next gen of pro-privacy smartphones to come along and then a couple of contenders start making noise at once…
Today, Silent Circle’s Blackphone 2 has gone on sale — with an RRP of $799 (excluding taxes). The company started taking pre-orders for the device last month, having first announced the phone back in March at the Mobile World Congress trade show.
Meanwhile, on Friday, BlackBerry CEO John Chen finally confirmed the various leaks pointing to a forthcoming Android-powered BlackBerry, due to go on sale by the end of this year in “major markets.” The BlackBerry Priv — as it’s called — runs “Google,” as Chen put it, while demoing the Qwerty slider to BNN. There’s no word on the Priv’s price tag at this point.
Silent Circle’s Blackphone targets the enterprise segment where BlackBerry used to dominate, before it fell behind the Android and iOS curve. Blackphone 2 runs the company’s security-hardened flavor of Android, now called Silent OS. And although this is an Android fork it now includes Google services — such as the Play Store — as well as support for Google’s Android For Work program, to check the IT department’s ‘mobile device management’ box.
Silent Circle says the handset is the first component of its cloud-based Enterprise Privacy Platform — which comprises a suite of services, software and devices all aimed at appealing to enterprise users by baking in privacy. It’s also certified with existing MDM systems, including MobileIron, Citrix, Good and SOTI.
And while, on the surface, the phone’s OS now looks more like A N Other standard Android handset, a spokesman for Silent Circle asserts that under the hood key security-focused differences remain. “They’ve worked closer with Google than they did before, which is why you’ll see that the Android platform is a much truer version. But SilentOS… is built deep into the phone so everything that sits on it is very much an enhanced version of Android,” he says.
The Blackphone hardware offers a vehicle for Silent Circle’s existing encrypted comms apps, such as Silent Phone — which are also available on other company’s hardware — but the handset also includes additional features such as Security Center, where users can granularly tweak app permissions, and a sandboxing feature called Spaces that offers separate secure environments to put barriers between personal and business data.
The original Blackphone included subscriptions to a variety of pro-privacy third party services. But SilentOS now bakes in more features so, while there’s a one-year subscription to Silent Circle’s services included in the price-tag, there’s no longer the range of third party subscription services that were included with the debut handset.
“What has been developed a lot more is actually what is available on the phone itself,” says the spokesman, discussing the shift away from bundling in third party subscription services. “Before you didn’t have access to things like Spaces, the Security Center, these aspects of the phone have been directly built into the new phone, which didn’t exist before.
“The wi-fi manager is more than simply managing connections — it provides you with an extra layer of security where if you’re in an area where there’s an insecure network it helps prevent making a connection, unless you specify you’re comfortable with allowing it to happen, which you wouldn’t get with any other traditional wi-fi systems.”
And whereas the original Blackphone bundled a subscription to secure cloud storage and file transfer service SpiderOak, the spokesman notes that secure file transfers can now be done via the Silent Phone application — which allows for files of up to 1GB to be transferred via its encrypted network.
As well as Google Play on board Blackphone 2, there’s also a Blackphone app store which aims to offer a curated selection of apps security reviewed by Silent Circle staff. As yet there aren’t many apps in this store but the spokesman says the aim is to start fleshing that out now. “They’re going to begin filling that over the next few months,” he notes. “There’s also going to be applications available on Google Play that get put through a rigorous series of tests by the security team and engineering team within Silent Circle.
“And then you’re going to almost have applications that sit in that store which although they’re linked directly through to Google Play, [you’ll have] the peace of mind and knowledge that they’ve gone through a thorough testing process. And any applications that would sit in that store are ones which are highly secure, unlikely to be leaking any of your data.”
Specs wise, the Blackphone 2 beefs up the original handset’s hardware with a larger, 5.5inch screen, an Octa-core Qualcomm processor, 3GB RAM, 32GB of internal storage plus a Micro SD card slot for user expandable storage, and a 13-megapixel camera.