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BlackBerry phones are surprisingly, amazingly, still a thing

Budget phone maker TCL, which licenses the BlackBerry name, says it plans to release at least two new keyboard phones this year.

The BlackBerry KeyOne will have some new siblings this year. 
César Salza / CNET

The Blackberry Key2 has been officially revealed. And yes, it has a physical keyboard.

I miss the resiliency of old-school BlackBerry phones.

My old BlackBerry 6220, complete with a track wheel and dorky holster, was built like a tank. I dropped it. I flung it in anger. When I was bored, I tried juggling it (and I'm a terrible juggler). It still kept ticking.

Its ability to withstand anything I threw at it is analogous to the mysterious viability of BlackBerry as a product. It's been a tough few years, with declining sales and a retreat into irrelevancy, countless proclamations of its death, and the actual BlackBerry company itself giving up on phones to focus on business software.

Yet you can still buy a BlackBerry phone today.

Now playing: Watch this: BlackBerry KeyOne has a physical keyboard filled with...

In fact, later this year, you'll be able to buy two more new BlackBerrys. TCL, which makes low-cost televisions and Alcatel-branded budget phones, said Tuesday at CES that it plans to release two new QWERTY keyboard BlackBerrys later this year.

It was roughly a year ago at CES 2017 that TCL said it would license the name from BlackBerry and take over the manufacturing and sale of phones. TCL, which had already been building BlackBerry-branded phones for a while, was a natural fit, even if it led to a bit of a head-scratching moment as I processed the news.

That TCL committed to making not one, but at least two new BlackBerrys suggests there's some life yet in the phones -- even if you don't know anyone who actually owns one. It also signals that TCL is still in this for the long haul, and that it's making good on its promise of rebuilding the broader portfolio of BlackBerry phones.

"It's a project," said Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, who estimates TCL may have shipped 170,000 BlackBerrys in the fourth quarter. "It's gonna be baby steps."

TCL, for its part, insists that there are customers who want the battery life, keyboard and security of a BlackBerry phone. Alaine Lejeune, global general manager for TCL's BlackBerry Mobile, said in an interview Sunday the company's BlackBerry sales in 2017 surpassed expectations by 50 percent. (It wouldn't say what those actual expectations were, so let's say it's more than four.)

Growing the BlackBerry family

TCL executives declined to offer details on the new phones beyond the fact that they would each come with a physical keyboard.

"We want to build a keyboard category," said Francois Mahieu, deputy president and general manager of global sales and regional marketing for TCL's BlackBerry business.

But the company also said on Tuesday that its all-touchscreen BlackBerry Motion will come to the US on Jan. 12 as an unlocked phone sold through Amazon and Best Buy for $449.99 (months after its launch overseas). Later this quarter, it will release a bronze colored version of its keyboard-rocking BlackBerry Keyone in select markets in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

With the Motion, which will only work with AT&T and T-Mobile, the company will stress the phone's battery life, water and dust resistance, and productivity aspects like the convenience key for quick access to apps.

One sign of encouragement for TCL: Roughly half of the customers who end up buying one of its BlackBerry phones are switching from an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S phone. That suggests the company is potentially winning back old BlackBerry fans who gave up on the brand or attracting new enthusiasts.

Mahieu said 60 percent of its sales in the US are coming from business customers, which analysts say offers some opportunity for BlackBerry.

Lessons learned

A late launch of the debut BlackBerry KeyOne hamstrung its momentum last year. After its unveiling in February, the phone wasn't made available until April, while the first US carrier, Sprint, didn't start selling it until summer. AT&T came on as a partner a few months later.

That gradual approach doesn't play well in an industry where new eye-catching phones emerge seemingly every other month.

"I don't think the brand bet Alcatel (TCL) made paid off as they hoped for," Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies, said about sales last year. She added that consumers and business customers have moved on.

Still, Counterpoint's Shah said the shipments were growing -- even if it's from a small base.

TCL said it's learned its lesson about getting more supply out and said it will work with carrier partners -- including the US -- to ensure a smoother launch this time. But Mahieu noted that TCL ramped up its progress quickly considering it was starting from zero a year ago.

"There was a moment where BlackBerry devices were not available on the shelf," he said. "It took time to make that happen again."

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