A new BlackBerry handset will launch in 2021. You read that correctly, BlackBerry is back from the dead... again. But how did we get here and what can we expect from the new phone?
Re-treading the rise and fall of BlackBerry is a common conversation in consumer tech, especially since the brand has had a second rise and fall in the last three years.
Once the business-tinged king of the phone world in the mid-2000s, the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard and straight-faced software didn’t survive the onslaught of the iPhone and the rise of Android. BlackBerry released one Android phone – the Priv – and then stopped making phones.
TCL then bought rights to release BlackBerry-branded phones to give us 2017’s KeyOne and then 2018’s Key2, an even better sequel. A couple of other handsets came of the partnership, but as of 31 August 2020, TCL stopped supporting these phones with software updates and the partnership ended.
So it was with some surprise that we heard in August that US company OnwardMobility had licensed the BlackBerry name and has since announced that it will work to release a 5G-capable BlackBerry device with a physical keyboard in 2021.
Here’s what we know about the new BlackBerry.
When is the new BlackBerry's release date?
A new BlackBerry Android phone was originally slated to arrive “in the first half of 2021”, according to OnwardMobility's initial 2020 press release on the subject, however, with the halfway point of the year well-and-truly crossed, it now looks as though a more general '2021' is the desired target.
Fast-forward to late July 2021 and the company has just announced its "Pre-Commitment Program," which gives fans and businesses a means of offering input on the development process of the first 5G BlackBerry, as well as the opportunity to gain early pre-order access, once the phone is ready for its debut.
While the program's sign-up page doesn't reveal any additional information about when the phone will actually be ready for release, it provides some insight into OnwardMobility's progress, with the development of their device already underway but a final engineering design or specs and features not yet locked in.
This new BlackBerry is expected to release in North America, Europe and Asia, although we don't yet know which specific markets within those regions are included.
How much is the 2021 BlackBerry price?
We have no indication of price yet, but our guess is that it will be fairly high, around perhaps the £800/US$800 mark. Unless OnwardMobility can find some big business buyers out the gate, we're not expecting their phone to sell in huge quantities. TCL's BlackBerry phones were generally more expensive than the specs warranted, compared to competing devices and we're not expecting that trait to change this time around.
A BlackBerry in 2021 is a niche device, to say the least, and while the premium price will attempt to reflect the exclusivity of a secure phone with a keyboard, the reality is that it will probably be expensive because of this same niche appeal.
What about the new BlackBerry 2021 specs?
According to OnwardMobility, their new BlackBerry will offer 5G networking capabilities and a physical keyboard. These really are the only two indications of specs that we have so far, aside from the phone running Android, as currently, the announcement is only of the partnership’s existence and nothing more.
OnwardMobility has licensed the BlackBerry name and is also working with FIH Mobile Limitied – a subsidiary of Foxconn – to manufacture the phone.
The only part of the original announcement that hinted at the specs of the phone state that “there is an absolute need for a secure, feature-rich 5G-ready phone that enhances productivity.” That’s still pretty vague but suggests that the actual company BlackBerry could be involved at the software level. as it was with TCL's phones. It wasn't responsible for the hardware design but its secure software was intertwined with Android, and may well be on OnwardMobility's new phone too.
On the other hand, BlackBerry has been selling off its catalogue of patents over the past year, with 90 sold to Huawei already, though admittedly that's a drop in the ocean compared to its purported total haul of 38,000 patents. It's not clear if selling off its smartphone software patents will affect the company's ability or intention to provide its own original software going forward.
‘Feature-rich’ perhaps means that the new BlackBerry will be an all-singing, all-dancing high-end device, unlike the KeyOne and Key2. 5G phones don’t need to be touting the latest most powerful Snapdragon chipset but it might help the new BlackBerry last a few years for buyers. The KeyOne in particular runs pretty slow today and was not well future-proofed.
New BlackBerry 2021 wish list
With so little concrete information to go on, here are a few things we hope OnwardMobility's new 5G BlackBerry is bringing to the table in order to do the brand justice.
A high refresh rate display
The KeyOne and Key2 used the same exact screen and it was not a good one. Colours were a little muted and brightness wasn’t great. A premium BlackBerry needs to pack a much better display, and we’d hope for one with a high refresh rate, this deep into 2021. If OnwardMobility wants to attract business professionals, it should treat them to a premium screen.
A superlative keyboard
It sort of goes without saying that the physical keyboard needs to be good, but the last great keyboard on a BlackBerry was 2014’s BlackBerry Classic. The clicky tactile keys haven’t been recreated since. The Key2 got closest, but the keys were too small and too square.
Sliding form factor
The problem with putting larger keys in is the expectation of modern smartphone form factors. The KeyOne and Key2 had poky screens in order to fit a physical keyboard below them and still have a phone of manageable size. We think the new BlackBerry should recreate the form factor of the BlackBerry Priv, with a regular touchscreen smartphone display and a sliding form factor that hides a physical keyboard.
Then again, if the phone aped the compact design of the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and made Android work properly, we’d be in nostalgia heaven.
The cameras on the TCL BlackBerrys were all weak. We hope the 5G BlackBerry has cameras that can hold their own against modern smartphones. If companies keep bringing the brand back, they need to stop compromising on the quality of the cameras, one of the main things people value on their phones – even businesspeople.