Startup OnwardMobility hopes fourth time's a charm for BlackBerry

Arriving next year, the 5G Android smartphone will take on form factor tradeoffs in pitching a physical keyboard to a world that types on glass.

BlackBerry Key2 hands-on

In the beginning, there were BlackBerrys, email appliances that opened the world's eyes to mobile data. Then came the second-generation BlackBerrys built on a new, short-lived operating system, BlackBerry 10. When the company exited the smartphone business and licensed the Blackberry name to TCL, we saw the third-generation BlackBerrys built on Android. And, next year, we will see what may be the fourth generation of the pioneering mobile phone brand courtesy a startup called OnwardMobility that has replaced TCL as the Blackberry brand licensee.

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How much of a break the new BlackBerrys make from the previous Android versions, particularly if TCL had been allowed to move forward, is yet unknown. OnwardMobility says that its first new BlackBerry set to debut in the first half of 2021 will support 5G. Beyond that, it will have a physical keyboard, run on Android, and focus on security and privacy as products -- all traits of products that TCL produced. Both traditional physical keyboards and newfangled folding screens, though, offer many ways to differentiate. (TCL seems keen on the latter, having shown off several, mostly non-functional, prototypes of devices with folding and even rolling displays last year.)

The keyboard is the thornier issue. On TCL's final Blackberry, the Key2, the company boasted that its keys had been enlarged over its predecessor. While its keyboard is usable, even efficient with practice, it faces tough competition from large smartphones that offer adequate spacing for screen-based keyboards. The Surface Duo and the LG Velvet (when equipped with its second-screen accessory) can even dedicate a whole screen to the keyboard. I once thought that, while physical and virtual keys offered comparable typing efficiency, the former felt better with its tactile response. But by the time Android-based BlackBerrys arrived against a backdrop of larger displays more friendly to touchscreen typing, the reverse felt true.

Even if the next BlackBerry creates best-in-class smartphone keyboard efficacy (which today belongs to the Planet Computers products), it still must allocate room for the keyboard. That requires either reducing the screen size (as in the Key2) or making a two-decked device (as in the F(x)Tec 1 or the Planet Computers' Astro Slide, which is also due with 5G in the first half of next year). Some BlackBerry fans online have said they would welcome an updating of the Priv, a vertical slider with curved edge glass. Here's where folding or rolling screens could come in handy, potentially creating minimal extra thickness while allowing access to a keyboard and larger display when extended.

When the news of BlackBerry (the company) and TCL parting ways broke earlier this year, I speculated on many of the reasons why BlackBerry might have terminated the agreement. OnwardMobility says one of the things that appealed to the licensor was the new company's ties to a well-regarded manufacturer. TCL may not have done enough to move the needle on BlackBerry volumes, but that's been a long-running challenge that OnwardMobility will have to face as well. Retro smartphone brands have had a mixed record. Nokia-licensee HMD has effectively attacked the value segment, Lenovo's Motorola brand is moving on from its modular Z-series experiment and initial RAZR revival, and startup Palm has stayed quiet since its initial mini-smartphone/companion landed with the thud of a basketball dribbled by backer Steph Curry.

It's now been almost four years since what was once Research in Motion left the smartphone market after its own long sales decline. 5G phones will be entering the market at a rapid clip next year. To make headway, OnwardMobility will have to extend the brand's reach and signature input method to smartphone users who have known only typing on glass.

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