BlackBerry has struggled to find a place in the modern smartphone era, and it turned to TCL to do the heavy lifting a few years ago. TCL has manufactured devices like the KEYone and KEY2 under the BlackBerry brand, but there won’t be any more BlackBerry phones from TCL. The company just announced that its licensing agreement ends on August 31, 2020.
To understand how BlackBerry and TCL got to this point, you have to look at the first few product cycles after the iPhone launched. BlackBerry stubbornly stuck with its traditional feature set as the iPhone grew by leaps and bounds. The company tried its hand at touch-screen devices like the BlackBerry Storm, but that was a flop. The company chugged long, losing market share quarter after quarter until it had to abandon its custom BlackBerry OS.
BlackBerry’s initial switch to Android was an entirely in-house affair with devices like the Priv. The deal with TCL, announced in December 2016, took all the hardware development off BlackBerry’s plate. This partnership gave us the KEYOne, Motion, KEY2, and most recently the KEY2 LE. That may be the last BlackBerry-branded smartphone for a while, or possibly ever. As of August 31, TCL no longer has the rights to use BlackBerry’s name or technology. TCL certainly won’t be launching any new phones with just a few months left in the contract, but it will also have to end sales of the ones it already released.
— BlackBerry Mobile (@BBMobile) February 3, 2020
TCL made this announcement on Twitter but hasn’t followed up with any of the replies asking for more information. Will Blackberry itself start making phones again? Will it partner with another manufacturer? We just don’t know. The only piece of good news is that TCL will continue offering software support for the devices it has released, although updates on TCL BlackBerry devices have never been stellar. The KEY2 is still on Android 8.1 Oreo, which is now two generations out-of-date.
Most of the BlackBerry devices from TCL had a physical keyboard with those perfectly beveled keys that made BlackBerry devices so desirable in the past. However, that came with a smaller display and a somewhat more awkward form factor for watching videos and taking photos. People have become accustomed to larger screens, and on-screen keyboards have gotten surprisingly capable with features like text prediction and swipe input. Thumb-typing with physical keys used to be the gold standard for mobile text entry, but now it’s slower than on-screen methods. Without the keyboard as a selling point, there may not be a place for BlackBerry phones.
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