Verizon will sell BlackBerry phones, but there's a catch

At CES 2019, BlackBerry phone maker TCL says the BlackBerry Key2 LE will be sold through Verizon's business channel.

BlackBerry's lower-cost smartphones will be available through Verizon's enteprise program.
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Verizon is providing a shot in the arm to BlackBerry Mobile's quest to return to relevancy in the smartphone world. Or, at least, to get you to realize that it still exists.

The largest US wireless carrier will soon start selling the BlackBerry Key2 LE to small and large business customers, which may mean your next work phone could be a BlackBerry device. The BlackBerry family of phones, manufactured and sold through Chinese consumer electronics conglomerate TCL, has slowly grown its portfolio and network of carrier partners across the world, even if getting recognition is a slog.

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Francois Mahieu, general manager of TCL's BlackBerry unit, said after its first year of operating under its licensing agreement with BlackBerry Ltd in December 2017, 20 percent of consumers surveyed still didn't know what operating system it ran. (For the record, it's been using the Android operating system since before TCL took over.)

A partnership with Verizon will provide a shot in the arm to TCL and BlackBerry's prospects, even if it comes months after the BlackBerry Key2 LE's launch in August. Verizon joins AT&T and Sprint as US carrier partners. TCL has been on a mission to revive the brand by offering one of the few smartphones in the market with a physical keyboard. But in a world where consumers are gravitating to big phones with bigger screens, it's been a tough slog for BlackBerry phones.

Even TCL executives would concede getting on more carriers like Verizon has taken longer than they would have liked.

"Clearly it's something that's overdue, but it's happening," Mahieu said in an interview at a MGM Grand conference room on Sunday ahead of CES 2019.

After pushing a premium product with the original KeyOne and Key2, which priced last year at $649, its Key2 LE went on sale for $399. Verizon gravitated toward the more low-cost Key 2 LE, which is the first phone on Verizon to offer a dual-SIM setup.

"We are excited to add the BlackBerry KEY2 LE to Verizon's portfolio of leading-edge smartphones for our business customers," said James Hammond, director of business devices at Verizon.

Verizon, however, will only sell the phone through its Enterprise program, which means consumers won't see it at Verizon retail stores or at Best Buy.

Under TCL, BlackBerry launched with the KeyOne at Mobile World Congress in early 2017. A year into it, Mahieu even offered a bullish prediction of capturing 3 to 5 percent of the premium smartphone market when we met at Mobile World Congress in February. On Sunday, Mahieu conceded he was being a little too aggressive with his expectations.

When asked for any new predictions, he responded, "No."

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