BlackBerry will launch two new smartphones this year that are not based on the existing KeyOne or Motion, and both will have physical keyboards. It has also added a third revision of the existing KeyOne to its lineup, in response to massive demand for the phone. Digital Trends sat down with Gareth Hurn, BlackBerry’s global head of device portfolio, to talk about the coming year for the company, and the influence the past year has had on its plans. It’s still too early for Hurn to talk specifics about the forthcoming new phones, but he did give us a few hints.
“There’s mileage to innovate further on the keyboard,” he told us. BlackBerry wants it to be seen as a modern alternative to a touchscreen, and not just a retro piece of tech for the nostalgic. Evidence of this can already be seen in the KeyOne, ranging from the customizable shortcuts that can be assigned to each key, to the entire keyboard working like a capacitive touch panel, adding convenience and functionality.
BlackBerry underestimated KeyOne demand by 50 percent.
“We’re paying attention to the feedback we’ve got from the KeyOne,” Hurn continued, adding that it has been very positive. “There are some things that could still be done even better, and we’re excited to evolve the keyboard further.”
“It’s not for everyone,” Hurn admitted, “but people are seeing the benefits and there’s interest in owning something different.”
The keyboard helped bring people back to BlackBerry, Hurn said, but it was the longer battery life that impressed many of them, particularly younger people who may have never owned a BlackBerry before. BlackBerry’s taking a different approach to the competition by emphasising the KeyOne’s long battery life (two days, approximately), rather than fast charging, as a way to stay connected for longer. The KeyOne still has quick-charge technology, but the company believes the real-world benefits of a phone that’s not plugged into a charger are greater.
Dual-SIM KeyOne Bronze Edition
BlackBerry launched the KeyOne in February 2017, and the initial plan was to sell it in around 10 to 15 markets. Less than a year later, it’s sold in more than 50 markets, and through 120 carriers globally. Hurn said BlackBerry underestimated demand by 50 percent, and called the period after its launch, “a roller coaster,” as the team came together and it learned to better manage the supply chain.
It’s now adding a third model to the range, following the original silver version and the black special edition that came in September. The new KeyOne Bronze Edition has a bronze finish and a dual-SIM configuration. It will be sold in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where demand for dual-SIM phones is higher. The price hasn’t been finalized yet, but will be around same $550 cost of the Black Edition, due to it matching the higher 6GB/64GB specification. The phone will launch before the end of March.
In addition to the KeyOne Bronze Edition, the touchscreen BlackBerry Motion is coming to the United States through Amazon and Best Buy, where the unlocked phone will be sold for $450 starting January 12. The Android-based phones will also receive a software update to Android 8.0 Oreo before the end of the summer, which will include new features and security enhancements.
BlackBerry déjà vu
BlackBerry is brimming with confidence going into 2018. What’s fascinating is how parallels can be drawn between its sudden resurgence and Research in Motion’s original meteoric rise nearly two decades ago. When it was called Research in Motion, it created mobile devices with three key principles in mind — a physical keyboard, great battery life, and security. Co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis both ridiculed the first few generations of iPhone for terrible battery life. At the same time, the Apple phone slowly obliterated the company’s market share. This hubris was part of Research in Motion and BlackBerry’s downfall.
“There’s mileage to innovate further on the keyboard.”
Interestingly, those same ideals are being brought back into play with a contemporary twist —privacy instead of security, messaging speed over productivity, for example — by a reinvigorated, confident BlackBerry, and they’re resonating with not only BlackBerry fans but newcomers, too. When BlackBerry phones became a must-have in the late 1990s, Research in Motion couldn’t make enough to keep up with demand. In 2017, the KeyOne similarly took the company by surprise, and is now sold in three times the amount of places than was originally intended.
The smartphone world is a very different place than it was when Research in Motion was changing the game. It failed to react to later changes, and paid a heavy price. Under TCL Communications and CEO John Chen’s guidance, BlackBerry has shrewdly recognized how the game hasn’t really changed at all, and is this time ensuring it doesn’t make the same mistake twice.