BlackBerry smartphones with their physical keyboards were around years before the iPhone emerged in 2007. Today, BlackBerry devices command less than 1 percent of the world’s smartphone market, and the company abandoned the smartphone business a year ago in favor of its management and security software.
Yet a new BlackBerry smartphone was announced this week. It’s not from BlackBerry but BlackBerry licensee, China’s TCL Communications.
In a perhaps quixotic bid to recall the glory days of BlackBerry, the TCL BlackBerry KeyOne features a 4.5-inch touchscreen as well as 52 raised physical keys in four rows at the bottom and a speedy SnapDragon 625 processor.
The device goes on sale globally in April. In the U.S., the KeyOne will cost $549 and be be available on major U.S. carriers, but first will be sold online, a strategy BlackBerry took for its series of failed smartphones in previous years due to carrier reluctance to stock the poor-selling devices.
TCL officials called the KeyOne the world’s most secure Android phone. It will run Android Nougat 7.1 but will add on traditional BlackBerry security, including an on-phone security tool called DTek, still developed by BlackBerry and included in the last several BlackBerry devices made by the company BlackBerry. TCL says BlackBerry’s continued ownership and validation of the Dtek software should help assuage any fears around whether the Chinese-made KeyOne is as secure as it is claimed.
Now in its third version, Dtek lets a user check if apps are meeting the security permissions that the user has authorized in Android. If an app is accessing a user’s camera to take a photo or turn on the phone’s microphone, the user can be alerted.
The KeyOne’s features include its fast Snapdragon processor and a 3,505 mAh battery that can be charged to 50 percent in 36 minutes. Its physical keys can be swiped like a touchpad to move what’s on the screen up or down or left to right. There’s also a 12-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front camera.
Each of the 52 physical keys can also serve as a customizable shortcut. For example, the F key when touched can be a quick path to reach Facebook, or the C could be customized to open the camera.
During a brief hands-on with a prototype of the KeyOne, I found the keys to be small and crammed together tightly at the bottom of the device, making it difficult to type on. Cistulli claimed the physical keys were exhaustively tested by existing BlackBerry users who are accustomed to typing on physical smartphone keys, and said they liked it. “It would take you one day to get used to it.”
Even with the hardware and software features of the new KeyOne and all the security claims behind it, Cistulli conceded that the biggest challenge will be marketing the device in a crowded and competitive smartphone market where BlackBerry has log ago lost its luster. Still, TCL’s goal is to beef up BlackBerry’s sub-1 percent market share in the U.S. to 3 percent by 2020, and to jack up the current 5 percent share in Canada to between 8 percent andd 10 percent, said Steve Cistulli, TCL’s North America president.
TCL makes televisions sold in the U.S., but is largely unknown there. It also makes lower-cost Alcatel smartphones sold in the U.S., but the KeyOne will be a higher-priced flagship brand, Cistulli said.
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