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OnwardMobility leans on nostalgia in new BlackBerry

OnwardMobility is betting the return of the physical keyboard to its new BlackBerry will garner fans among mobile professionals. The phone is set for release next year.

OnwardMobility is banking on a combination of contemporary and nostalgic features to spark sales of a new BlackBerry smartphone, set for release in the first half of next year.

The mobile security firm announced this week plans to release the Android-based smartphone with 5G support and the physical keyboard behind BlackBerry's onetime popularity, which hit its peak in 2010. However, analysts questioned whether the mixture of old and new would be enough to convince mobile professionals to trade in their Samsung and Apple devices.

What has left industry observers skeptical is the lack of details. OnwardMobility, which has licensed the BlackBerry name, has yet to release the phone's technical specs, pricing or features.

"It's unclear what, beyond nostalgia, would make it attractive," said Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder, calling the new BlackBerry phone a "long shot" to make inroads in the enterprise market.

Return to smartphones

Earlier this year, it seemed as if the BlackBerry name might never again appear on a smartphone. In February, BlackBerry announced it would let its licensing agreement with manufacturer TCL Communication lapse.

Tuong NguyenTuong Nguyen

Analysts said BlackBerry had lost relevance over the years, having failed to push past early innovations like the QWERTY keyboard on its phones and BlackBerry Messenger. According to Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen, BlackBerry's share of the smartphone market had nearly vanished by 2016.

Though the BlackBerry name has substantial recognition, analysts said the new phone would likely struggle to gain a foothold in the market. Some professionals may remember using a physical keyboard on their old BlackBerry, but that input method has not been commonplace for a decade, Gownder said.

While such a keyboard could make typing out emails faster, its appeal is limited to a narrow audience, Nguyen said.

OnwardMobility CEO Peter Franklin said the enterprise user behind BlackBerry's original success still wants the security and productivity features that he plans to have on the new phone.  "I really do believe there is a gap right now, and that is a gap we expect to fill," he said.

Where that gap lies is unclear. In recent years, Apple has emphasized privacy and security, promoting efforts to keep user data on user-controlled devices. Samsung has pushed its built-in Knox software for its Galaxy phones as an additional layer of protection for customer and business information.

Tough sledding ahead

Samsung has taken the top position in the Android market, leaving little room for a new smartphone, Gownder said. Not even Google, with its Pixel phones, could overtake Samsung.

"Outside of Canada, I don't think BlackBerry has a strong name anymore," he said. "It's a bit like Atari coming back into gaming: People remember it, but not the value proposition."

The pandemic has made it more challenging to launch a new device in an already competitive smartphone market, Nguyen said. With fears of a recession, users are likely to be more conservative in making device purchases.

Yet this mix of old and new could have power in the marketplace, said Constellation Research analyst Holger Mueller.  "As long as there are millions of former BlackBerry users who remember how productive they were on the keyboard, there is a market," he said.

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