TCL promises BlackBerry Android smartphone with QWERTY keyboard for U.S. market

TCL showed off a prototype BlackBerry Android phone with a QWERTY keyboard at its media event at CES.

LAS VEGAS—China’s TCL said it plans to release a range of BlackBerry-branded smartphones in the U.S. market this year, with the goal of growing BlackBerry’s falling smartphone market share by 2018.

“We intend on stopping this downward trend [in BlackBerry’s market share] this year,” and growing sales the year after, explained Steve Cistulli, president and general manager for TCL Communication (TCT) North America, here during a media event held in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Show. Cistulli said TCL plans to release a range of Android-powered, BlackBerry-branded smartphones, both at the high end and the low end, aimed at the enterprise market, and will sell the devices through wireless carriers, a direct sales force, and other channels. He also said the company will provide details, including device prices and specifications, at the upcoming Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.

Importantly, Cistulli added that TCL plans to hire some BlackBerry salespeople from the Canadian company to help TCL push its BlackBerry devices to enterprise customers. Cistulli didn’t provide any more details, including how many salespeople would move from Canada’s BlackBerry to TCL.

Cistulli added that TCL would look to leverage wireless carrier sales channels to grow its BlackBerry smartphone sales. Those comments are notable considering U.S. wireless carriers like T-Mobile gave a cold shoulder to the BlackBerry Priv, the first Android-powered BlackBerry smartphone that was designed by Canada’s BlackBerry company. “We will re-engage the carrier channels,” Cistulli promised.

Cistulli explained that there is “pent up demand” for enterprise wireless devices that are not using Samsung’s Knox enterprise software or Apple’s iOS operating system, though he didn’t provide specifics. “I still see plenty of growth [in the enterprise sector],” he said. He promised that TCL would be able to start growing its BlackBerry device sales by 2018.

TCL announced in December that it would license BlackBerry’s smartphone brand in countries around the world (BlackBerry will license its brand to regional smartphone vendors in India and Indonesia). Cistulli explained that Canada’s BlackBerry would continue to design the core Android-based BlackBerry security features for the phone, while TCL would design the devices’ user interface. Interesting, Cistulli obliquely acknowledged enterprises’ potential security concerns China-made phones by explaining that the core security functions on TCL’s BlackBerry devices would be handled by Canada’s BlackBerry and not TCL, which is based in China. Chinese companies have long operated under a cloud of suspicion following government concerns that the Chinese government might be able to spy on U.S. operations through products from Chinese companies. For example, China’s Huawei has largely been blocked from the U.S. wireless infrastructure market due to such concerns.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Cistulli conceded, nothing that TCL would need to compete against smartphone heavyweights like Apple and Samsung. However, he noted that the BlackBerry brand was well respected, and could give TCL a leg up in the space. He also said that, if the company’s enterprise sales efforts were successful, TCL would consider taking the BlackBerry brand to the consumer market.

“It’s a brave step for TCL,” said longtime handset analyst Ramon Llamas, a Research Manager with IDC's Wearables and Mobile Phones unit. However, Llamas added it remains an “open question” whether TCL will be successful in targeting enterprise customers.

In the United State, TCL is the nation’s fourth-largest smartphone marker, behind Samsung, Apple and LG. TCL primarily sells phones through prepaid services under the Alcatel brand in the United States, and Cistulli said the company would continue to do so as it works to bring BlackBerry-branded phones to market. Cistulli didn’t provide specific TCL or Alcatel sales figures, but noted that sales of Alcatel-branded phones in the United States have grown roughly 50 percent year over year.

Cistulli said TCL’s move to license the BlackBerry brand essentially amounts to a change to the company’s business model—one geared toward allowing the company to more effectively and quickly compete with larger smartphone players like Apple and Samsung.