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BlackBerry KeyOne's mission impossible: Bringing back the brand

Chinese company TCL will have to work through years of failure if it wants to spit-shine the BlackBerry name.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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BlackBerry is back, courtesy of TCL. Whether people will pay attention is still up in the air.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Reviving BlackBerry is the mobile equivalent of chasing unicorns -- it's a Sisyphean task that's gotten only more mythical with time.

Four years ago, then-CEO Thorsten Heins tried to reinvigorate the company's flagging sales with the BlackBerry 10 operating system and the Z10, a modern phone designed to take on the iPhone and Android handsets. Eleven months and several misfires later, the board showed Heins the door.

When John Chen replaced Heins and embarked on his own comeback quest, he first appealed to our nostalgia with the BlackBerry Classic. Nope. In 2015, Chen bet the company's phone business on Google's popular Android software with the Priv phone.

That effort -- you guessed it -- flopped once again. Chen couldn't be bothered to show up when the company quietly released new phones last year, and in September the company bailed on making its own devices in favor of focusing on business software and security services.

The string of failures underscores just how difficult it is to revive a phone business once it begins its slide. Apple and Samsung dominate premium phones, while Chinese companies rule the budget market. And in BlackBerry's case, much of the industry and most consumers have largely moved on.

Unless you're TCL. The Chinese company, best known for making affordable televisions and budget Alcatel-branded phones, will take a crack at turning BlackBerry around and has licensed the use of the brand.

TCL unveiled the BlackBerry KeyOne at a press conference in Barcelona on Saturday during the Mobile World Congress trade show. The company wants the phone to hit the market in April, first through direct sales, and then through carrier partners.

While TCL has done an admirable job taking a no-name brand like Alcatel and making it competitive with other budget phones, that was akin to getting a car to go from zero to 60. Turning BlackBerry around is more like stopping a car that's careening backward, before even thinking about getting it to go in the right direction.

Gartner best summed up BlackBerry's dire state with its fourth quarter report, in which the smartphones made up "0 percent" of the market. (It actually shipped around 200,000 units, but the number was low enough to equate to a rounding error.) Samsung and Apple jointly control nearly two-fifths of the market for smartphones.

That's a far cry from eight years ago, when roughly one out of every five smartphones sold was a BlackBerry.

New lease on life

TCL's first move is to erase BlackBerry's mistake of overpricing its phone.

At $549, the KeyOne is $100 cheaper than the starting price of the iPhone. The Priv started at $699, a head-scratching $50 premium to the iPhone -- a problem that BlackBerry acknowledged after reporting weak sales of the device.

Unlike its Alcatel phones, TCL's KeyOne boasts premium specifications, including a 4.5-inch display with 1,620 by 1,080 resolution, a tough Corning Gorilla Glass 4 screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chip with a separate graphics processor for its brains, a 12-megapixel rear camera supplied by Sony and an 8MP front-facing camera for selfies.

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There are handy shortcuts that you can program into the physical keys.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Like previous BlackBerry phones, its physical keyboard is touch sensitive, allowing you to set shortcuts and swipe across the keys with your fingers to scroll through a web page. New to the phones is a shortcut function that lets you tie each letter key to a program or action (like compose e-mail) depending on a short or long press, giving you 52 options.

TCL has been working to make the BlackBerry phone more secure than even the Priv, and Steve Cistulli, head of TCL's North American business, vowed that by the end of the year, its BlackBerry phones will be as secure as a BlackBerry 10 device.

"It is the uncompromised Android solution," he said in an interview on Saturday.

A little TLC

A large tent was set up just steps away from the Poble Espanyol architecture museum, the inside awash in blue lighting with the BlackBerry brand front and center. The last time BlackBerry released a phone, it let people know via a press release.

TCL hopes the renewed energy it's injecting into BlackBerry will get people thinking about the brand again -- especially the carriers.

"TCL selling BlackBerry should also be more responsive than BlackBerry had been in the past to market changes," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.

Admittedly, there was little love between the carriers and BlackBerry by the time Chen started positioning his company away from the phone business. BlackBerry's last two DTEK phones, which TCL designed and built, were sold directly through the company.

Even its big comeback phone, the BlackBerry Priv, was an AT&T exclusive initially before showing up at the other carriers months later, with much of the enthusiasm and momentum dissipated.

Then there was Chen himself. He said on multiple occasions that he would be willing to dump the phone business if it couldn't turn a profit. While he argued that the media had taken his comments out of context, anyone could look at the company's results and see the writing on the wall.

TCL's hope is that a new company providing solid, consistent support will help consumers and carriers alike learn to trust the BlackBerry name again.

"TCL absolutely needs to advertise the fact that BlackBerry smartphones are 'under new management,'" said Avi Greengart, an analyst at research firm Global Data.

Cistulli promised a heavy digital marketing effort with business customers this year, and it plans to go after consumers once it has a broader portfolio of products, in 2018.

Safety vs. security

While security is a prime topic of concern, it's not enough of an issue to sway people when they're deciding what phone to buy.

Cistulli said he wants to change the primary term from security, which is a bit more ambiguous, to a more clear-cut promise of safety.

"You should feel safe if you have this device with you, whether it's in the office, soccer field or movie theater," he said.

Cistulli acknowledged that getting that message across to consumers will be a challenge. "How do we make it resonate?" he asked, noting that consumers will hear more in the coming months.

TCL boasts it is the most secure Android phone in the world. BlackBerry Senior Vice President Alex Thurber promised monthly security updates to the phone.

Ultimately, while the BlackBerry brand is well known, recognition itself isn't going to win TCL any sales. The company needs to add new features that tie into the BlackBerry reputation for productivity and security, something that BlackBerry itself failed to do for years. The physical key shortcut trick is a start, but TCL will have to get creative.

"They've done some clever things," said Ian Fogg, an analyst at IHS. "They'll need to find something similar with BlackBerry as well."

Otherwise, it may be up to the next poor soul that takes up the BlackBerry comeback quest.

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