TCL thinks it can bring BlackBerry back from the dead.
The Chinese manufacturer, best known in the US for its affordable TVs and Alcatel-branded smartphones, on Wednesday unveiled the first BlackBerry phone it will release since formally acquiring the rights to the once-leading mobile brand in December.
It’s a bit of an odd announcement: TCL isn’t disclosing the actual name of the phone yet, nor is it confirming its specs, price point, or release date. The company says those details will come closer to the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona next month.
Instead, it’s giving media at CES 2017 in Las Vegas a peek at an alpha version of the phone, albeit one with finished hardware, to get in front of the handful of leaks that have popped up in recent months.
Those leaks pointed to a phone, codenamed “Mercury,” with the kind of QWERTY keyboard that BlackBerry was known for before its well-documented fall from grace, and it turns out they were correct. The keyboard spreads out across the width of the phone, but, as with the competent but ill-fated Priv before it, the keyboard feels jarring in a world where touchscreens have long become the norm.
At first blush, it’s good for what it is: The keys are clicky and responsive, the necessary characters are there (though having no dedicated period key is a pain), there’s a fingerprint reader built into the space bar, and there’s still some level of touch support, so you can, say, swipe across the keyboard to move your cursor onscreen.
The question is whether or not a good phone keyboard is something worth pursuing in the first place. The fact that BlackBerry’s global market share fell from 20% to 0.1% while all-touch phones grew dominant over the past decade, leading the company to get out of hardware entirely, would suggest not.
But TCL’s North American boss Steve Cistulli says there’s still “strong enough” demand for the more tactile feel of a physical keyboard, particularly among enterprise customers. Though earlier rumours suggested that BlackBerry had this new phone in the works months before TCL took over its hardware, Cistulli says the company thinks of QWERTY phones as one part of its BlackBerry suite of devices, and that it will keep the keyboard around “as long as the market demands it.” In other words, this might not be a one-off.
The keyboard is the defining feature here, but the rest of the hardware felt perfectly fine during my brief demo. It’s a handsome phone, all black and silver, with smoothly rounded sides and a grippy, rubberised texture on its back. Unlike the previous DTEK50 and DTEK60 — the two most recent BlackBerry phones, which TCL manufactured for BlackBerry before acquiring its rights entirely — it doesn’t feel like an ordinary Android phone with a BlackBerry logo slapped on; it’s got the aesthetic down.
Beyond that, there’s a USB-C port on its bottom, a shutter button on its side, and a big, round camera with a slight bump on its back. The 4.6-inch display looks just fine. The whole thing is on the thicker side, but it doesn’t come off as cheap or unwieldy — just a little odd.
BlackBerry itself is still behind the phone’s software, and it appears to be very similar to what was available on the Priv and DTEK phones. Namely, there’s a clean-looking version of Android 7.0, just peppered with various BlackBerry-made apps that you’ll probably find redundant.
The bigger deal is security — the enterprise market remains slightly more receptive to BlackBerry than the consumer one, so the company still puts a focus on encryption, more palatable privacy checks, and other protective measures. TCL did not immediately respond to a request for comment on if the new phone will apply Google’s monthly security updates for Android, but it’s been faster than most in that area before.
TCL’s end goal is to push from what Cistulli calls its current “tier two” status into the “tier one” sphere occupied by Samsung, Apple, and, to a lesser extent, Huawei. The plan is to take its gains with Alcatel, which largely gets by on selling affordable Android phones, and beef that up with a legacy brand in BlackBerry, which they can pitch to their existing carrier and retail partners as another way in with the enterprise and people who generally want something different. Cistulli says TCL will put more marketing and sales resources behind BlackBerry to help — though he didn’t say how far that will go — and that he thinks it will make “visible” sales gains by 2018.
Now, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that will happen. Even if it has grown in recent years, Alcatel isn’t exactly a household name on every carrier’s store shelves (no Verizon, for one), and BlackBerry’s departure from relevance has been long and deliberate. Either way, market share hasn’t translated to lots of profit for Android manufacturers.
Whatever the case, whether or not this new BlackBerry phone is worth buying will come down to what’s inside of it and how much it costs. Until those details become official, though, what remaining BlackBerry fans are left can now confirm that their keyboards haven’t been lowered into the grave just yet.