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BlackBerry and Nokia still struggling to make a comeback

A year after these once-greats staged their return, we're still waiting to be impressed.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Last February, the once-great Nokia and BlackBerry brands each hoped to stage a triumphant return at the world's largest phone show.  

A year on, we're still waiting for a knockout device that will put either one back in the international spotlight in a meaningful way. Despite the brands launching eight Android phones between them in the past year, it's clear neither one has turned the tide.

Neither company can expect to return to their pre-2010 heights, before the phone world accelerated its path to its current iPhone-Android duopoly. But if their respective comebacks fall flat, it means fewer choices for consumers in an era increasingly dominated by Apple and Samsung handsets.

Fewer than 6 million Nokia phones shipped in the past year, IHS Markit analyst Wayne Lam told CNET, adding that his firm deems 10 million shipments as significant. BlackBerry Mobile could have shipped as many as 170,000 units in the fourth quarter, according to Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research. In contrast, Apple sold 77.3 million iPhones in a single quarter

BlackBerry Mobile (as opposed to BlackBerry Limited, which doesn't manage the phone arm) declined to share sales figures and HMD Global, which licenses Nokia's name, didn't respond to multiple requests to comment on this story.

Low sales figures are to be expected for these revivalists, even a year in. Comebacks in the phone world don't happen overnight; they occur over years of steady investment and marketing work.

"[With] Nokia and BlackBerry, there's an expectation that they will take the world by storm in just a few months and dominate the market once again," said Francois Mahieu, BlackBerry Mobile's chief commercial officer. "The world knows there are two mega players right now, Apple and Samsung ... it takes time."

Both BlackBerry and Nokia phones are expected to update in the coming months, hoping to kick up momentum once again. The Nokia brand has its announcement this week at Mobile World Congress 2018 and BlackBerry is expected to unveil its next phone later in March, according to analysts.

The hopefuls will need much more than a flashy presentation or booth space to wrest attention from the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, which Samsung will unveil on February 25. For BlackBerry and Nokia devices to stand a chance against the Samsung leviathan, they'll need to show top-tier phones with hardware and software good enough to compete.

Nokia hopes a meh 2017 leads to an 'awesome' breakout in 2018

A year ago, it looked like Nokia phones would fulfill their fans' biggest wish: to run on Android software. But even six releases in, the handsets aren't doing much other than laying a stable budget base. After years of smartphone hot potato, they have a lot of catching up to do.

The original Nokia phones first switched hands to Microsoft, which bought the rights in 2013, and replaced Nokia's proprietary software (primarily Symbian with a dash of MeeGo) with Windows OS. Three years later, Microsoft bumped its license to a new company, HMD Global, which uses Android.

With so many Android phones available, Nokia phones today rely on hardware and competitive pricing to stand out. However, HMD Global's 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and higher-end Nokia 8, failed to generate as much buzz as the 3310, a revamped feature phone that doesn't even have Wi-Fi, apps or a touchscreen.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On the flip phone side, Nokia "may be in for a slight revival especially on the backs of the new 4G feature phone trend that is sweeping global markets such as India and other cost sensitive global markets," said Lam.

We're not exactly sure what HMD Global has planned for Nokia in 2018, apart from something "awesome," according to a tweet from Juho Sarvikas, the product lead of HMD Global, which operates out of Nokia's spiritual homeland of Finland. But the fact that HMD Global is hosting a press event, when few brands want to compete with Samsung, shows a commitment to further build the Nokia name in 2018.

Most buyers throughout the world pick new phones through their carrier. Nokia could differentiate its hardware by offering a feature other phonemakers don't, perhaps a return to the 41-megapixel "PureView" camera from 2012.

But its best chance of success is to get on as many global carriers as possible.

"The big question for HMD/Nokia is whether their success can continue without moving into the US, which is a tough market and one where the Nokia brand will not help much," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "Nokia will not be able substantially to grow further without gaining share in China and the US."

BlackBerry: Staying alive, but only just

Where Nokia phones spread out over the entry-level and midrange, the new BlackBerry brand wanted to punch in with a single high-end device, the KeyOne.

Licensed by China's TCL Communication, which also markets Alcatel phones, the KeyOne returned to the legacy brand's core characteristics of a physical keyboard and enhanced security that caters to corporate IT policies.

Late in the year, the keyboard-equipped KeyOne was joined by the all-screen BlackBerry Motion. And in January, the company introduced a new KeyOne color and direct US sales for the BlackBerry Motion, which had previously only sold in Canada.

While we don't expect to see new BlackBerry phones until after this month's biggest mobile trade show, TCL's investment indicates that it's business as usual.

blackberry-keyone-3347-009

Josh Miller/CNET

BlackBerry phones have more carrier visibility than Nokia handsets in the key US market, with a presence in AT&T and Sprint. Globally, Orange, Vodafone and Singtel are wins. That was all part of TCL's two-pronged plan.

"Number one for us was to make BlackBerry available all over the world again," BlackBerry's Mahieu said, adding that the KeyOne is sold in more than 50 countries. The second approach is to court security-conscious businesses to offer BlackBerry phones as an option for employees, alongside Apple and Samsung devices.

"BlackBerry will be the third choice for the employee," said Mahieu.

To this end, BlackBerry Mobile has seeded over 1,000 businesses with its phones for testing in-house, in the hopes that at the end of the trial, companies embrace the KeyOne and Motion. Over 30 percent of those corporations would bring the phones on board by the end of December 2017, the phonemaker said, and it expects that figure to rise to over 50 percent by end of March.

Not everyone agrees with the brand's chances. "Sadly, I think they overestimated the size of the QWERTY market as well as how difficult it is to get into the enterprise market," said analyst Milanesi.

While BlackBerry's visibility is still a blip on the global map, its strategy to build through carriers and corporations could forge some humble inroads, so long as its phones can offer the same features as other top handsets for the same price or less.

Now Playing: Watch this: Nokia 3310 and BlackBerry KeyOne: CNET editors react
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BlackBerry could also gain momentum by jumping early on the foldable smartphone trend. We've already seen one device with the ZTE Axon M, and Samsung has vowed to release its first foldable phone in 2018.

"I think if BlackBerry are design savvy, they can add to the overall conversation around how these devices look and operate," IHS Markit analyst Lam said.

It's too soon to say if BlackBerry phones will move quickly on the foldable concept. Regardless, TCL shows a confident face.

"BlackBerry handsets are here to stay," said Mahieu.

Article updated at 9:57a.m. PT: It mistakenly stated that the Nokia 3310 is a flip phone. It is a feature phone.