BlackBerry (BB) (BB.TO) is keeping a toe in the handset wars by partnering with a U.S. startup to launch a BlackBerry-branded 5G device with a physical keyboard in 2021, but a tech expert doesn’t think there is a large enough audience for the phone.
The Waterloo, Ont. tech company has partnered with Texas-based OnwardMobility and FIH Mobile (a subsidiary of Foxconn Technology Group) to release the 5G-enabled Android smartphone in North America and Europe. BlackBerry’s 2016 licensing partnership with TCL ended this month.
The three companies will work together on design and product planning, BlackBerry said in an email.
In an interview, Sarah Tatsis, vice-president of advanced technology development labs at BlackBerry, specified one feature the handset will include; a physical keyboard. “OnwardMobility [will] make sure that our keyboard experience meets expectations of customers,” she said.
Carmi Levy, director at Info-Tech Research Group, says there is always a demand, if limited, for phones with keyboards. “While BlackBerry long ago lost its crown as the leading smartphone maker, some end-users still pine for the days when they could thumb-type on real keys instead of on glass,” he said. “This is a small niche that grows smaller almost by the day, and it’s clear there is no longer mainstream demand for devices featuring physical keyboards.”
Levy noted that if there was still a market for phones with keyboards then “BlackBerry wouldn’t have licenced its brand to TCL, and TCL would not have later on ended that partnership.”
“It’s difficult to see Onward succeeding where TCL could not,” he said. “There will always be something of a market for phones with physical keyboards, as well as for devices that incorporate better-than-mainstream levels of security in their standard form. The question remains whether that market is large enough to be worth pursuing and recent history suggests it isn’t.”
Levy noted that BlackBerry moved on from designing and manufacturing its handsets and allowed third-party vendors like TCL to manufacture BlackBerry-branded devices under licence using some BlackBerry technology and in turn, the company rebuilt itself as a security software and services company.
“The announcement by OnwardMobility has little to do with BlackBerry beyond the fact that this previously unknown company will make its own devices and add the BlackBerry logo to them under licence,” he said.
“I doubt this will have any material impact on BlackBerry’s share price or overall market valuation, as there is little connection between the two entities beyond the contract that allows Onward to use the brand under licence.”
For its part, BlackBerry is positioning the smartphone as a play on its security-minded brand. Tatsis would not specify potential security features but said “we see this as a smartphone that needs to live up to protecting customers from a security and privacy perspective.” She added the phone is specifically aimed at governments, and organizations “that base a high-value on security and privacy.”
Tatsis also said the phone will be meant for the many who have now adopted a work-from-home routine and require better security at home.
5G is not fully available in Canada. In January, Rogers announced it is rolling out its initial 5G wireless networks in various downtown markets across Canada. In June, Bell and Telus each launched similar initial 5G networks.