The first reviews of the new KEYone BlackBerry handset appeared this week, and the early consensus is that this device will appeal to BlackBerry fans who want its familiar physical QWERTY keyboard coupled with the functionality of Google’s Android operating system.
This handset technically is not a true BlackBerry — it is the first device from TCL since it entered a licensing agreement with BlackBerry Limited, formerly Research In Motion, the maker of the original BlackBerry handsets. TCL’s license agreement covers the name and hardware patents, including the QWERTY keyboard. BlackBerry still provides the back-end software, but the KEYone runs the Android OS under its BlackBerry skin.
The KEYone has the appearance of a classic BlackBerry. It features a 4.5-inch scratch-resistant display, an 8-MP front camera with flash, a 12-MP autofocus large-pixel rear camera, a fingerprint scanner and BlackBerry security software.
It is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 Octa-Core 2.0 GHz CPU with a 64-bit Adreno 506, 650-MHz GPU. It has 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash memory.
The KEYone is preloaded with BlackBerry applications, as well as standard Android apps including Google Chrome, Google Maps and Gmail. It can run on LTE and CDMA networks. It supports Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, WiFi and even FM radio.
The BlackBerry KEYone became available earlier this year in Canada. It will hit the shelves next month in the United States for US$549 unlocked. It will become available from Sprint this summer.
The KEYone’s greatest strength may be the inclusion of the physical keyboard, based on early reviews.
“The BlackBerry KeyOne feels like it was built by BlackBerry, which means TCL did a good job keeping things familiar,” Todd Haselton wrote in his review for CNBC.
“The highlight of the device is its hardware backlit keyboard, which some people apparently still want in a smartphone,” he added.
“A BlackBerry without a keyboard is like a ThinkPad without the pointing stick,” wrote Brian Heater for TechCrunch.
However, going from a virtual keyboard to a physical keyboard posed a challenge.
“It’s actually hard to move back to typing on a QWERTY keyboard,” explained CNBC’s Haselton. “And unlike the BlackBerry Priv, which offered a software keyboard option, you have to stick to the hardware here.”
The phone’s $549 price point could make that keyboard an expensive feature, but it “should align well with anyone who misses the feel of a physical keyboard,” noted Jeff Dunn for Business Insider. “What’s more, it’s the only good phone for that group. For everyone else, though, it’s probably overpriced.”
Even though it might excite long-time BlackBerry users who desire the tactile experience of a physical keyboard, it is unlikely that the KEYone will shake up the market.
“It’s a niche product,” said Steve Blum, founder and principal analyst at Tellus Venture Associates.
“The KEYone has a screen size and physical keyboard that’s optimized for email. It’s not exactly a nostalgia phone, like the Nokia 3310, but it is a retro product,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Sending email using a physical keyboard was the entry point into the mobile tech world for many Gen-Xers and baby boomers, and many of them might find comfort in the KEYone, suggested Blum.
That could help sustain the product line — but only to a point.
“Whether it’ll sell well enough to keep BlackBerry in the smartphone game is a different question,” Blum said. “The answer depends on whether BlackBerry’s shareholders will be satisfied with a niche role in the mobile market.”
The KEYone likely will have no appeal for iPhone users, or for Android users who want the functionality of a large touchscreen.
“Clearly, it is for the loyalists out there,” said Ramon T. Llamas, research manager for wearables and mobile phones at IDC.
“We’re not expecting it to light the world on fire, even as some people said this is the device that should have come out years ago. We can’t rewind time,” he told TechNewsWorld, “but we can see that there are those business users who are typing hounds and will want the device for its physical keyboard.”
This isn’t the first Android device running BlackBerry software, noted Ian Fogg, senior director for mobile and telecoms at IHS Markit.
However, “this is really the first non-sliding classical BlackBerry with a keyboard under the screen,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“Price is the biggest issue, as $550 is a lot to swallow,” noted IDC’s Llamas. “Yes, it is cheaper than Samsung Galaxy S8, but arguably that is a different kind of customer. However, BlackBerry used the same blueprint to target business users with a different choice years ago.”
The KEYone is the first licensed BlackBerry device, and as such it is a gamble both for BlackBerry Limited and for handset maker TCL.
“This matters more to TCL than BlackBerry,” said IDC’s Llamas, “but no matter how the sales are, BlackBerry (the company) will reap the license revenue.”
However, it also will allow TCL, which historically has been producing phones for the consumer market, to pivot toward business users, he pointed out.
TCL will not bear all of the risk, though.
“If this was a traditional licensing agreement, then that would be true,” explained IHS Markit’s Fogg.
“While we don’t know the terms of the agreement, beyond the costs there is the brand risk. If this handset does badly, or there are issues, it could damage the brand; so brand risk is there, even if there isn’t an actual monetary risk,” he explained.
“The Priv and the DTEK60 didn’t do all that well, and there isn’t any sign to the carrier that this will do much better either,” Fogg added. “Simply getting adequate distribution and persuading carriers to offer the KEYone with a contract plan is going to be the big challenge. Without that distribution, it is going to be just a niche device.”