When TCL Communication announced the end of its licence to make and sell BlackBerry handsets it looked likely the brand would end up confined to conversations about the good old days of BBM and how great or painfully awkward using a tiny smartphone keyboard was.
However, just when it looked like the BlackBerry party was over, out of the ashes the hitherto unheard of OnwardMobility announced plans to breathe life back into the brand with a 5G handset scheduled for 2021.
In an interview with Mobile World Live (MWL) following the announcement, OnwardMobility CEO Peter Franklin pointed confidently to potential markets of an increasingly security-conscious public alongside private and public sector organisations, with high demand for the famous keyboard.
“There are a lot of consumers and users out there who very much want to see and use the keyboard,” Franklin said. “We feel strongly we’re meeting an opportunity there to fulfil that need in the market.”
While Franklin clearly believes the form factor is one of the key selling points, in an interview with MWL, former licensee TCL Communication’s GM for global marketing Stefan Streit cast doubt on the size of the audience.
“It was a great time together and a very unique product proposition.”
“There are lots of very loyal BlackBerry fans around the world but the reality is also the size of the loyal fans is getting smaller and smaller. There are some keyboard lovers, but most of the people have changed to full touch.”
Without full details on what it plans to launch, it’s hard to properly assess OnwardMobility’s chances. However it’s worth noting neither BlackBerry’s original creators nor a company with massive amount of handset experience were able to pitch a version able to successfully compete with modern smartphones.
Although Franklin would not divulge specific price points for its proposition, the device is being prepared to compete at a “flagship level”, so you can assume this will not be a budget model.
It’s fair to say the analysts we quizzed about the prospects for the 5G BlackBerry were not positive.
“It’s going to be a tough ask to resurrect BlackBerry as the smartphone industry has evolved massively in the past ten years,” ABI Research consumer devices research director David McQueen said.
“The brand now doesn’t hold anywhere near the cache it once did, and a hard QWERTY keyboard, security and BBM are not key differentiators anymore,” he added. “Indeed, some users would have a Blackberry as a second phone for work, but I doubt many would go back to that either, with the majority of most decent smartphones managing all that is required for work and personal lives in a single device.”
CCS Insight chief of research Ben Wood added “while the revelation that a company has decided to revive BlackBerry devices will spark a wave of nostalgia, it is hard to see how it will be a viable venture”.
“Perhaps the team at OnwardMobility has found a niche I’m not aware of, but I fear it’s going to be a tough challenge to bring BlackBerry devices with physical keyboard back in the market”.
IDC worldwide device trackers programme VP Ryan Reith said anything above mid-range would be a hard sell, noting TCL Communications had done nothing wrong with its reboot of the devices, there was just a “realisation that there is little-to-no demand for BlackBerry phones”.
“Unfortunately for BlackBerry [licensees] there really isn’t demand outside of a few possible niche verticals that require certain levels of security and already have BlackBerry legacy backend,” he added. “The reality is a lot of other mobile security options have advanced so far in recent years that BlackBerry’s one unique advantage has lost a lot of its power.”
Fall and fall
The fall of BlackBerry (the first time around) is well documented, but still no less shocking when you consider the raw numbers.
In the then BlackBerry parent Research in Motion’s 2011 Annual Report, it boasted being the biggest-selling smartphone brand in the US, Canada, UK and Latin America, with more than 50 million devices shipped that year.
By the time it staggered away from the devices market in 2016, it was barely shipping 500,000 handsets a quarter.
Despite the fanfare and hype surrounding TCL Communication’s grand relaunch in Barcelona with the KeyOne ahead of MWC 2017, the company failed to have a huge market impact. TCL Communication has not publicly stated how many of these, or sequel the KeyTwo were sold, but neither seemed to gain massive traction.
Will BlackBerry take three fare any better?
If you listen to analysts the answer is almost certainly no, however you can never completely predict what will fire the public and businesses’ enthusiasm.
Alternatively, if OnwardMobility can create something with genuine USPs and pitch it at the right price with branding to appeal to an audience beyond die-hard BlackBerry fans, perhaps it can wake this sleeping giant.
However, it’s hard to believe the nostalgia factor and a physical keyboard alone will be enough to propel the brand back into the mainstream.