BlackBerry sets own pace for 2019: Strikes Verizon deal, but no 5G phone coming

BlackBerry Key2 LE review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

BlackBerry continues to look to its roots to continue growing in 2019, but isn’t about to jump into one of the biggest — and buzzword-filled — mobile trends of the moment. First, BlackBerry is going home this year, and no, we don’t mean to Canada. We mean it’ll be selling its latest smartphone on the Verizon network in the U.S.. Anyone waiting for a BlackBerry Android phone with 5G capabilities will have to wait at least a year before one arrives.

Verizon deal

BlackBerry Key2 LE Hands On
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Digital Trends sat down with BlackBerry’s Global General Manager and Chief Commercial Officer, Francois Mahieu, at CES 2019 to talk about the company’s upcoming mobile plans.  TCL Communications — the company with the licence to produce devices under the BlackBerry name —  has fully embraced BlackBerry’s history, and the new Verizon announcement taps into that even further. Verizon was one of BlackBerry’s most faithful partners in the early days, often selling exclusive devices made for the network.

However, before you get too excited, Verizon’s only dipping its toes into the new wave of BlackBerry devices for now, rather than diving in fully. The BlackBerry Key2 LE will be sold through Verizon’s Enterprise business unit, which is definitely where the phone belongs, but sadly it won’t be sharing space with other smartphones inside Verizon’s retail stores. A disappointment, but still a significant move for BlackBerry.

“For us this is a big milestone,” Mahieu told Digital Trends. “We have been working on this for some time, Verizon is very strong in the business space, and our roots are in business, so to have such a big player onboard is a big thing for us.”

Third U.S. carrier

The newly reinvigorated BlackBerry will enter its third year of existence in 2019, having launched the KeyOne in 2017. Now, the hardware is available in 50 countries and on more than 110 carriers around the world. In the U.S. you can buy BlackBerry phones through AT&T and Sprint. Adding a third is great news, but what about the consumer side? Is getting a Verizon Enterprise deal a stepping stone to getting the Key2 or future BlackBerry phone in Verizon retail stores? Mahieu paused as he thought about his answer.

“Not in the very short term, it will take a while,” he said.

If you were very keen on acquiring a BlackBerry Key2 LE through Verizon, the business side will help everyone from sole traders up to huge corporations. But if you called up as a private customer, they’re unlikely to turn you down. But it’s not designed to be marketed towards you and me just yet.

He continued to offer an insight into why. He said that around the world, carriers are, “Testing the waters and then progressing [with BlackBerry phones].” Verizon will judge for themselves if it is successful.”

He pointed out to how this has worked in Canada, where the devices are now offered through major networks and price-sensitive Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), after more speculative launches earlier on.

5G and the future

What about BlackBerry’s mobile future? It’s not in 5G. At least, not yet. Mahieu told Digital Trends there will not be a 5G connected BlackBerry phone in 2019, although other manufacturers have already announced they are pushing ahead with the fledgling network technology this year. Why?

“It’s not exactly the perfect user case for BlackBerry,” Mahieu explained. “The 5G early adopter will want it for multimedia devices. We want to innovate in different areas.”

This doesn’t mean TCL Communications, doesn’t understand 5G’s importance.

“Over the next two to three years innovation [in the mobile space] will come from flexible displays and 5G,” said Stefan Streit, TCL Communications general manager of Global Communications.

The company is working with carriers and chipset makers and will make 5G dongles in the near future. On the display side, its own mobile display subsidiary, CSOT, is currently working on bezel-less AMOLED panels and punch-hole displays.

Loyal BlackBerry owners

blackberry key2 back full
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Mahieu summed up BlackBerry’s two years of existence.

“Little by little we are gaining traction,” he said. “What I’ve learned through launching the BlackBerry brand, is that things take time.”

It’s not rushing with 5G, and is more than happy with its Verizon business deal, and its pace seems to strike a chord with its fanbase too. He shared some interesting statistics. BlackBerry has become a very sticky company, in that 80 to 85-percent of people who have bought a new BlackBerry phone with Android will upgrade to another BlackBerry phone.

Loyalty means a lot, and it’s clear BlackBerry owners are enamoured with the security, keyboard, and Android operating system offered by the brand now, and aren’t demanding nascent new technology to feature on their next device.

The slate-coloured BlackBerry Key2 LE with dual-SIM support will arrive on Verizon Enterprise in the coming weeks.

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