The Reanimation of BlackBerry Smartphones

Texas-based start-up wants to bring back BlackBerry devices

Over a decade ago, BlackBerry was one of the world’s most popular phone brands and, giving credit where it’s due, the Canadian company popularized the concept of mobile messaging.

Now, the brand is poised to make another comeback in the smartphone market, with the hope that the BlackBerry name still has some clout among IT managers and enterprise users. Like other handset names that have been recently enjoyed a revival including Nokia, Palm and the Motorola Razr, BlackBerry will need to do more than depend on nostalgia for success.

BlackBerry has licensed its brand and the manufacturing rights for BlackBerry-branded smartphones to OnwardMobility, a start-up from Texas with plans to develop enterprise-grade, 5G-capable devices running the Android operating system. OnwardMobility will work with Foxconn subsidiary FIH Mobile to help design and manufacture the devices.

FIH Mobile is the turnkey mobile wing of Foxconn that takes care of product development and design, manufacturing and after-sales services and repairs. It also handles the manufacturing and design for HMD Global’s Nokia-branded smartphones.

Peter Franklin, CEO of OnwardMobility, has said that “enterprise professionals are eager for secure 5G devices that enable productivity, without sacrificing the user experience”.

BlackBerry, once well-known as Research in Motion, created devices that were synonymous with e-mail on the go. It released its first phone, the 850, in 1999, offering a highly functional physical keyboard and strong e-mail features. The company’s proprietary operating system was recognized for its near-watertight security and outstanding battery life. BlackBerry devices became an instant hit with business executives and even heads of state, and played a big role in extending the workday to commuter trains, restaurants, homes and beyond.

Following their peak in the 2000s, BlackBerry smartphones were squeezed out of the market by competition from Apple’s iPhone and a parade of Android smartphones enabled by Google. When BlackBerry tried to reinvent itself in 2016 with the launch of its own Android-based touch-enabled smartphone, it was too little, too late. BlackBerry then changed its business model for smartphones into a licensing strategy, allowing other companies to use its brand and software elements to create hardware powered by the Android platform.

This isn’t the first attempt to resurrect the BlackBerry hardware by a third party. In 2017, TCL, a Chinese company known for its Alcatel handsets and tablets, scored a licensing deal with BlackBerry to build an Android-powered handset, dubbed the BlackBerry KeyOne, which was later followed by the Key2. In February 2020, TCL announced that it would walk away from the licensing agreement with Blackberry after 31 August 2020. This was a tacit admission of failure, and all the evidence suggests that TCL never managed to develop a profitable business with BlackBerry devices. It’s hard to see how another business will be able to make a success of this in the current market.

OnwardMobility says the pandemic has created a need among IT departments to equip remote employees with secure communications. The company expects that BlackBerry devices will instil confidence. The upcoming phone will also feature the once-loved physical qwerty keyboard.

Worryingly, the press release from OnwardMobility is light on details. Other than saying that the device will run the Android operating system and offer 5G connectivity and a keyboard, not much is clear.

BlackBerry used to have three main differentiators: battery life, security and a physical qwerty keyboard. These days, most Android phone-makers deliver similar battery life, and security has improved dramatically on Android and Apple’s iOS, leaving only the keyboard as a distinguishing feature. But I believe even that’s going to be a hard sell, as most users are now comfortable typing on a touch screen. And in a world where it’s all about the content on the display, there’s also a big trade-off in screen size with the addition of a physical keyboard.

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 keyboards back into the market. OnwardMobility will really have to justify its efforts to IT managers, explaining the problem it promises to solve, because unfortunately, nostalgia is not a strategy.