Like a bad zombie movie sequel, BlackBerry phones are coming back from the dead, a second time. After TCL tried and failed to make a business out of licensing the BlackBerry brand and selling Android phones, a new startup called OnwardMobility sounds like it will pick up essentially the same playbook in 2021.
There aren’t too many details yet, but OnwardMobility put out a press release and website detailing the new BlackBerry phone plan. The company says it will make “a new 5G BlackBerry Android smartphone with physical keyboard, in the first half of 2021 in North America and Europe.” The press release also mentions that “BlackBerry smartphones are known for protecting communications, privacy, and data,” so expect lots of encryption. There are also several nods to enterprise customers—really, it all sounds like the same old BlackBerry.
BlackBerry-branded phones from BlackBerry died in 2016 when the company quit the handset manufacturing business. BlackBerry stuck with its own in-house OSes for too long while the Android and iOS duopoly took over the world, and the company’s sales tanked. It wasn’t until 2015 that BlackBerry made its first Android device, the BlackBerry Priv, but by then it was a “bet the company” situation and the Priv flopped. BlackBerry ended up licensing the brand to Chinese company TCL Communication, which went on to produce some shamelessly rebranded slab phones and a few faithful-but-expensive QWERTY bar phones like the BlackBerry KeyOne and the Key2. TCL wasn’t any more successful than BlackBerry selling Android phones, and in February 2020, BlackBerry announced that TCL was walking away. The TCL licensing deal actually expires at the end of this month, and BlackBerry already has a new suitor lined up.
OnwardMobility’s press release says BlackBerry and FIH Mobile will be involved in the design and manufacturing of the new devices, which is a good sign. FIH Mobile is a Foxconn subsidiary. While “Foxconn” is a contract manufacturer that will just build your design, the FIH Mobile wing of Foxconn is a turn-key smartphone operation that does product development and design, manufacturing, and after-sales services and repairs. FIH Mobile currently handles the manufacturing and design for HMD’s Nokia phones, which we are huge fans of.
When TCL signed its BlackBerry deal, it didn’t just license the brand, it also got a license for BlackBerry’s keyboard patents, letting it make authentic-feeling QWERTY pads. The press release doesn’t outright mention patents, but it does say BlackBerry is involved in the design, suggesting it signed a similar deal.
The BlackBerry Android lines from BlackBerry proper and TCL both had the advantage of being basically the only hardware QWERTY Android phones on the market, but twice now consumers have not shown a huge amount of interest in that idea. It’s not clear why OnwardMobility thinks it can succeed where TCL failed, but we’ll see what the company’s sales pitch is like when the phone launches next year.