LAS VEGAS — Hold off before reading the last rites for BlackBerrys.
When the fallen Canadian smartphone champion announced in September what seemed inevitable, that it would stop making the hardware for which it built its reputation, some thought it was time to bury BlackBerry handsets for good.
But BlackBerry insisted then that reports of the phones’ imminent demise were premature, and that it was just shifting the manufacturing burden elsewhere.
On Wednesday at CES, TCL Communication Technology Holdings Limited gave me an early touchy-feely glimpse of an attractive new aluminum BlackBerry, complete with the type of physical Qwerty keyboard that seduced BlackBerry loyalists back in its heyday.
“There’ve been so many rumors out there. We just wanted to say, look that it’s real, it’s a part of a portfolio play, it’s part of a commitment going forward,” TCL Communication President and General Manager for North America Steve Cistulli, told me during an interview.
TCL is the North American arm of a Chinese company whose brands include Alcatel, and it's the No. 4 maker of handsets in North America,
The company is keeping pricing and most of the specs under wraps until the yet-to-be officially named phone—it has been identified by a codename Mercury—formally launches around the Mobile World Congress timeframe in late February. But it runs Android Nougat software, has a USB-C port, a fingerprint sensor built into the keyboard, and standard headphone jack, and will include such familiar BlackBerry staples, as the BlackBerry Hub and, most critically for businesses, the promise of robust security.
TCL will also continue to sell existing touchscreen BlackBerry models, such as the DTEK 50 and DTEK 60 under the BlackBerry Mobile branding, which it has also manufactured.
Cistulli is looking to compete against tier one competitors in the enterprise space, claiming BlackBerry’s security software outguns Apple’s iOS and Samsung’s Knox solutions. Though the BlackBerrys are manufactured in China, TCL says it is the only Android partner to have its software “digitally signed” by the enterprise software team of BlackBerry in Canada.
“That’s a clear and competitive advantage,” Cistulli claims.
Cistulli doesn’t rule out competing in the consumer market eventually but says that will take time. “The consumer is always part of the equation. Do I have a goal of putting these into retail stores with carriers? Yes.”
But the stronger consumer push isn’t likely to occur until 2018, when he’s convinced TCL will be able to “stop the downward trend which is happening right now.”
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