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BlackBerry is back! Will anyone care?

The phone brand has clawed its way out of the grave thanks to a Chinese company.


Within the Encore Las Vegas hotel, there's a suite adorned with the BlackBerry logo. Three podiums stand by a window, displaying BlackBerry phones.

Executives are walking around, showing off the devices. One exec taps a remote, and the curtains pull back. Instead of sunlight, there's a large BlackBerry poster plastered on the window, hawking a new phone.

Wait a minute. Didn't BlackBerry (the company) give up on making BlackBerry (the phone)? Where am I? When am I?

This is not BlackBerry the company, though. It is China-based TCL, which is best known for making budget televisions found at Costco and Walmart. (TCL's Alcatel unit also makes budget-friendly phones.) TCL is at this week's CES showing off the devices, including a prototype of the next BlackBerry, which is only referred to as Mercury. But BlackBerry is back. Again.

Now playing: Watch this: Psst! We saw BlackBerry's next keyboard phone

For the few -- and shrinking -- BlackBerry diehards, this is yet another chance to stick with their cherished brand. TCL's decision last year to take over the BlackBerry brand represents another reprieve for the struggling phones, which consistently defy the odds through their continued existence.

BlackBerry has spent the last three years in a virtual death spiral, launching phones that failed to resonate with consumers captivated by Apple's iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S phones. Even BlackBerry's embrace of Google's Android software, starting with the Priv, turned few heads.

Its market share dwindled to a fraction of a percent, according to market researcher IDC. That's particularly sad considering BlackBerry had nearly a fifth of the market in 2009, just behind fellow fallen-giant Nokia.

So is this a suicide mission for TCL?

A risky bet

TCL believes it can succeed where BlackBerry itself failed, on numerous occasions. For one thing, TCL's Alcatel unit already has a relationship with the company; it was the silent partner that built the BlackBerry DTEK50 and DTEK60 phones.

"They are making a tremendously risky bet, but they're not going into this blind," said Avi Grengart, who focuses on consumer products at market researcher Current Analysis.


There are few details on the upcoming BlackBerry phone aside from the fact that it has a keyboard you can swipe across to control the screen (like previous BlackBerrys) and it has a fingerprint reader.

James Martin/CNET

While the BlackBerry brand is wounded, it is still a recognizable name. That's more than can be said for TCL or Alcatel, which have quietly drawn customers by offering more bang for their buck. The BlackBerry name will be independent from Alcatel, which has separate sales and marketing teams, Steve Cistulli, head of Alcatel's North American business, said in an interview Tuesday. Both sit under the TCL umbrella.

TCL's deal with BlackBerry also makes it the exclusive partner to build and distribute BlackBerrys worldwide, except in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Cistulli has ambitious goals for BlackBerry. He expects to stabilize the BlackBerry business by the end of this year and get it back to a growth trajectory by 2018. He plans to tap into business customers who are coming up for their 24-month phone upgrades.

That sounds great, right? But it's also what BlackBerry has said in the past.

Where TCL plans to differ is the breadth of products. The company expects to come out with two BlackBerry devices at different prices this year, and more in 2018. BlackBerry misfired with the high-priced Priv and apparently introduced a low-cost version of its Android BlackBerry too late.

"We need to bring confidence back in the handsets themselves," Cistulli said.

TCL plans to lean on the relationships with carriers that it has fostered over the last three years -- a problem BlackBerry struggled with as it faced limited distribution.

For the next year, consumers aren't likely to see the BlackBerry name on any billboards. TCL will focus on getting carriers to sell the phones to business customers. But Cistulli believes there is an opportunity to get it back into the consumer market once TCL stabilizes the core corporate segment.

"Given the overall trajectory BlackBerry has had in recent years, don't count on this being an overnight success," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. "There are a lot of moving parts to this, and it could take months or even into 2018 to see some results."

CES serves as a coming out party for TCL's embrace of BlackBerry. It will share more details about its BlackBerry phones at Mobile World Congress in late February.