In the annals of cellular devices that I have owned, I am only a handful of phones removed from owning a BlackBerry. That handful of phones spans at least a decade, so while it’s been a while within relative time, it still feels recent. Perhaps because many of us stuck with BlackBerry as smart phones rose around them, eventually switching out of necessity. BlackBerry, to its credit, never really went away.
There have been some recent BlackBerry branded phones, as BlackBerry itself is a security company now. TCL took up the mantle, releasing the KEYone in 2017 and the KEY2 back in 2018. Both phones were mild successes, in that we noticed they existed but didn’t exactly challenge Apple or Samsung for any kind of dominance. They were made for a target market, a niche of smart phone users lamenting the loss of a physical keyboard and the nostalgia of BlackBerry phones.
I had a BlackBerry Tour 9630. Then I upgraded to a BlackBerry Q20 SQC100-3, with a much easier to use track-pad and less of a reliance on finding replacement trackballs. The PRIV and DTEK60 were horrible phones and all but sealed BlackBerry’s fate as a phone company. But as Matthew Hughes is reporting today for The Register, BlackBerry as a branded phone is not yet ready to fade off into obscurity.
TCL is no longer the manufacturer renting the BlackBerry name, that honor has shifted to Texas startup OnwardMobility. There aren’t many details about the phone as it stands, but Hughes was able to derive from the company that it will support 5G, include a physical keyboard and run Google’s Android OS. It will also use a clean-sheet keyboard created in-house, not relying on any previous designs from TCL or BlackBerry. The trick will not only be creating a functionally sound keyboard that can compete with the intuitive flow of virtual keyboards, but a phone that stands up to the security expected when imprinted with the BlackBerry name.
BlackBerry had always been one of the most secure phone brands out there (hence its turn to a company focused solely on security) but its switch to Android with the KEYone was a bit contradictory to that pedigree. So not only would a new BlackBerry phone have to overcome that hurdle, but it would have to include smart phone features such as a quality camera and additional specs that we would expect from a phone being released in 2021. The 5G readiness is a good start, as the latest slate of iPhones will finally bring Apple into the 5G Thunderdome.
The days since my BlackBerry Q20 have been full of rugged phones, surprisingly long-lasting Motorola phones and the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren, the first phone I’ve ever paid full price for (I usually wait a year and get them on the cheap). The point is, I’m that target audience for a BlackBerry. I don’t get a new phone every year, I am a specific shopper who had a life with a BlackBerry and still longs for that life. If a marketplace has room for folding phones, it has room for physical keyboards.
That’s the hope that OnwardMobility is likely pinning its BlackBerry phone success on, that people like me, still mentally locked to a golden age of cellular devices will want to fork over mid-tier cash for a renewed BlackBerry device in an economy struggling post-pandemic. It’s a strange time to release a new BlackBerry phone, but then, what time isn’t it strange to do so?