TCL intros BlackBerry KeyOne ahead of MWC

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The Chinese manufacturer is hoping to revive BlackBerry's once-dominant brand

BARCELONA, Spain—TCL announced its first BlackBerry-branded handset here during the Mobile World Congress trade show.

The Chinese vendor—which is the parent company of the Alcatel brand—held a media event Saturday to showcase the KeyOne, an Android-based phone featuring BlackBerry’s noted security and software offerings. The device also offers a 4.5-inch keypad and physical keyboard in an obvious effort to appeal to the business users among whom BlackBerry once dominated.

“Impressively designed to be different, the BlackBerry KeyOne reimagines how we communicate by offering unmatched productivity and the world’s most secure Android smartphone experience,” TCL CEO Nicolas Zibell said in a press release. 

“We're humbled to play such an important role in the future of BlackBerry smartphones, which have been so iconic in our industry, and we're eager to prove to the BlackBerry community that their excitement around this new BlackBerry smartphone is something that they can be proud of as well.” 

The KeyOne will launch in April with a price tag of $549. The phone will support all four major wireless networks in the U.S. 

BlackBerry finally bowed out of the manufacturing game in September after years of seeing its smartphone business destroyed by vendors selling phones running Android and iOS. Instead, BlackBerry is working with manufacturers to design its branded hardware as it shifts its focus to software and services.

The KeyOne offers some respectable—if not necessarily eye-popping—specs. It has a 12-megapixel primary camera and an 8-megapixel front camera, and the resolution of the Corning Gorilla Glass screen is 1,620 by 1,080. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s relatively modest Snapdragon 625 processor in an effort to maximize the efficiency of its sizable 3505mAh battery.

The phone clearly is targeted at business users who value the security and privacy features upon which BlackBerry built its once-dominant brand, and to do so without the high-end price tag that was a major factor in the disappointing sales of last year’s BlackBerry Priv. And TCL must revive a dusty brand that consumers have fled in recent years in favor of more compelling, user-friendly brands.

“The productivity-centric market now mostly uses Android or iOS, TCL must re-establish the appeal of the BlackBerry brand,” wrote Ian Fogg, head of mobile analysis at IHS Markit. “TCL must execute effectively on its brand and operational advantages if it is to turn around the fortunes of BlackBerry as a hardware brand. “What it must avoid is simply pursuing the same strategy of recent years, because that will see Blackberry continue to decline.”