With the news that TCL has ended its licensing agreement with BlackBerry, once again the tech world can mourn. It’s a shame but how surprised can we be?
The issue is not the licensing of smartphone brands given the success of HMD’s Nokia range and the continued existence of TCL’s own Alcatel handsets. It is because BlackBerry is a brand forever linked with the past, with dead platforms like BBM and the dreaded ‘app gap’ that plagued its older phones.
It’s not that the TCL BlackBerry phones were bad – it’s just that not enough people want to buy a BlackBerry.
Unless TCL ever reveals exactly why the partnership has ended, we can only speculate. But surely a big part of it is that the phones did not sell on the scale needed to finance a niche project like this.
(I’d like to briefly preface this by saying that I personally loved the KeyOne and Key2. But I am part of a relatively tiny minority, which is the entire problem with the business case for the partnership.)
The saga of BlackBerry is akin to a zombie that just won’t die. The zombie is also probably wearing a suit and in a cab on Wall Street trying to check its emails. At the risk of further braindead metaphors, let’s recap.
After the generally well-received BlackBerry Priv in 2015 it briefly looked as if the company formally known as RIM might have actually saved its handset business from its death throes. BlackBerry had foolishly hung onto its own hamstrung operating system BB10 before the Priv accepted Android had won and put a hardware keyboard on a capable, Google-powered device.
But it proved to be the last phone company itself designed as it pulled out of the hardware game altogether and started its new life as an enterprise software company. We mourned, but we moved on – except for Priv owners, miffed that their expensive phones only ever received one Android OS update from Lollipop to Marshmallow.
When TCL licensed the BlackBerry brand just a year after the Priv, it repackaged the Alcatel Idol 4 and shipped it as the BlackBerry DTEK50, a phone with a terrible name but quite good software security perks that TCL said the actual BlackBerry company developed.
Android is the Key
So far, so confusing. But after the pedestrian touchscreen DTEK60 came the surprisingly decent KeyOne in April 2017 and things looked a little more promising on paper. Here was an Android BlackBerry with a hardware keyboard running the latest version of the OS.
But the issue was still that the phone had mid-range specs, a hardware keyboard, and the BlackBerry logo on it. The phone got decent reviews but was £499 at launch – a high price for a phone that had mid-range specs, a hardware keyboard and the BlackBerry logo on it.
TCL had priced the KeyOne thus because it knew it wouldn’t sell many. Come the time of 2018’s Key2, the price rose to £579 – at the time a whopping £110 more than the technically superior OnePlus 6.
Some will argue that it is pointless to compare a utility focused productivity phone like the Key2 to premium glass slabs like the OnePlus 6 or the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy device. But the issue is more nuanced – we compare such prices to show that TCL had entered into a battle it could not win: a battle against consumer indifference.
The few people who wanted a hardware keyboard on a phone or were nostalgic for the BlackBerry brand went out and bought a KeyOne or Key2. But this number was so, so much lower than any of the other popular phones at the time that it was not the foundation of a successfully ongoing partnership.
The phones were marketed with the promise of the best Android security available. At launch, the Nougat KeyOne and Oreo Key2 could just about claim this as they had the latest version of Android with all Google's recent security features, plus BlackBerry’s DTEK software on top.
But now we have Android 10 with improved security and superior, granular privacy controls. Both the KeyOne and Key2 (and the pared back Key2 LE) are all stuck on Android Oreo, 2017’s Android flavour. This means any phone on Android 10 today is technically more secure than any of TCL’s BlackBerry phones, even though they are marketed as having the best security.
A recipe for disaster
When you have phones marketed under a brand associated with a bygone era that have hardware keyboards and software that is not kept as secure as possible, it is clearly a combination that won’t last – or sell phones to disinterested floating voters. The devices were only ever for the BlackBerry fans who had never moved on.
That said, it's a shame that such niche devices can no longer viably exist in a hyper-competitive smartphone market where bleeding edge specs and high-end cameras are reviewed more positively and marketed with far higher budgets.
There is speculation as to the exact reason the TCL BlackBerry experiment is over. It might well be that both companies did not have enough resources to keep the existing phones updated with the latest software, and in turn not enough firepower to crank out a Key3. But this surely stems from the fact not enough of the devices were sold in the first place.
Less than three years in, the partnership is over. TCL says sales of the phones will end on 31 August this year and it will continue to provide customer service and warranty service for customers until 31 August 2022. It is unclear if the phones will continue to receive Android security patches.
It’ll be a tough pill to swallow if you’ve just forked out for a Key2, but chances are you haven't. Not enough people actually wanted a new BlackBerry, and that’s why this relationship was always destined to be short lived.