Author(s): Ben Wood
TCL Communication today unveiled the BlackBerry-branded Key2 smartphone at an event in New York. The Key2 is the successor to the KeyOne, which appeared in April 2017 as the first BlackBerry device with a physical keyboard produced under BlackBerry's licensing agreements with other manufacturers.
The BlackBerry Key2 bears a remarkable similarity to its predecessor. To the casual observer it looks almost identical, but its maker claims it has listened closely to feedback from owners of the initial version and has made numerous updates to improve the device.
The primary different is the keyboard, which is has slightly bigger keys. The device's overall size stays the same thanks to a 25 percent smaller top bezel. The keyboard's usability has been improved with subtle improvements to the angled keys and a much softer keypad mechanism which, based on my initial experience of the the device, is much better than the one on the previous model. TCL Communication claims the feel of the keyboard was inspired by the highly successful BlackBerry Bold 9900.
Much fanfare was made about the addition of a new "speed key", which the maker claims is the first new key to be added to the BlackBerry keyboard for 10 years. It's designed to allow fast toggling between applications; although I can see the advantages, I'm not sure I share the BlackBerry Mobile team's enthusiasm for this innovation beyond it being a nice-to-have addition.
Some clues about the marketing for the Key2 can be found in the narrative that accompanied the launch. The strapline "an icon reborn" was used and there were nostalgic overtures as the device was described as the "best mobile tool for helping customers save time" as well as the ability to stay connected "safely and securely".
BlackBerry certainly has assets in this area with its hardened version of Android, secure elements built into the hardware and its DTEK security application. However, security is a big focus for competitors too. Google now offers monthly security patches and many more business-orientated security features that other smartphone makers can easily integrate. Additionally, leading Android phone-maker Samsung has its Knox security platform, which is well liked by security-conscious users. As a result BlackBerry's historical competitive advantage has been diminished.
There are some further nice security touches on the Key2, such as a secure locker, which can provide an additional security layer to applications requiring a fingerprint or secure unlock to access them. Furthermore, it's possible to take secure pictures by using the fingerprint sensor as the shutter button; pictures taken with this method are immediately stored in a secure area of the phone. There's a secondary browser, FireFox Focus, which resides in a secure container and can be used for private browsing, with all browsing history removed from the device at the end of a session. Although a nice idea, it felt more like a gimmick than a real reason to buy the device.
TCL Communication has resisted the temptation to go for the most powerful Qualcomm processor currently available, instead opting for the Snapdragon 660. The chip is more than powerful enough for most tasks and the inclusion of 6GB of RAM aids performance. The choice of processor is likely to prolong battery life. The company claims users should easily be able to get through a whole day without having to recharge. However, like rivals, it has also implemented quick charge capability that achieves 50 percent charge in 36 minutes.
The Key2 is the first BlackBerry device to sport a dual-sensor rear camera. Two 12-megapixel elements and improvements to the camera software bring image capture up to par with more-recent smartphones.
The device will command a hefty price tag of £579 ($649 or €649) when it goes on sale at the end of June, although it's markedly lower than flagships like the iPhone X or Galaxy S9. However, the recent debut of the OnePlus 6 at £469, complete with the latest Snapdragon 845 processor, shows how much competitive pressure BlackBerry Mobile faces.
But who will buy the BlackBerry Key2? Some clues can be found in the KeyOne, which was primarily purchased by devoted BlackBerry users who were desperate to upgrade their ageing devices to a modern smartphone with the latest version of Android and all the apps that go with it, while benefitting from a BlackBerry physical keyboard.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest markets for the KeyOne have been traditional BlackBerry heartlands like the US, Canada, Germany and the UK, although the manufacturer hasn't provided specific data on sales volumes of the KeyOne.
But it can be assumed that the most-committed BlackBerry users have already bought a KeyOne, and are unlikely to be tempted by an upgrade after just a year, particularly given the similarity of the new device to the old one.
BlackBerry Mobile seems to be pinning its hopes on wooing former BlackBerry owners (of which there are more than 100 million) back into the fold. The company claims about half of KeyOne owners had switched from an Android smartphone or an iPhone. In my view, attracting iPhone owners is a huge challenge, although there may be a small number of Android smartphone owners who will appreciate the familiarity of the Android operating system combined with the utility of a physical keyboard. The same argument applies to devices like Planet's Gemini (see Gemini: A Tale of Two Halves).
One other small niche has also emerged. BlackBerry Mobile cited previous sales in South Korea to the "K-pop generation", although no figures were provided and we believe volumes are pretty small at present. The k-pop generation is a young group that has never owned an original BlackBerry devices but is attracted to the KeyOne — and presumably the Key2 — because it's a distinct fashion statement that stands out against an avalanche of identikit touchscreen rectangles. This may prove wishful thinking on BlackBerry Mobile's part, but it's an interesting marketing approach.
Despite the enthusiastic statements at the launch event, the Key2 is going to be a tough sell. Everything depends on BlackBerry Mobile's ambitions for the device. If it has modest sales expectations, there may well be a small niche for it in a smartphone market of 1.5 billion annual sales. However, it is hard to see how the device will grab a meaningful market share.
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