Blackberry Key One Mobile Phone

BlackBerry was once the largest smartphone maker in the world. But over the past decade, iPhones and Android devices redefined smartphones and left BlackBerry with less than 1% of the market.

Four years ago, BlackBerry stopped making its own phones and licensed its brand to Chinese smartphone maker TCL to produce new Android devices. TCL’s devices included the Key2 and KeyOne, which included BlackBerry’s physical keyboards, and the all-touchscreen BlackBerry Motion.

BlackBerry's KeyOne.

But earlier this year, TCL ended the partnership and announced it would discontinue all its BlackBerry phones in late August. BlackBerry’s phones seemed destined to vanish again, but the company recently licensed the brand to a Texas-based start-up called OnwardMobility.

OnwardMobility, which was only founded last year, will license BlackBerry’s brand and launch new 5G phones with Foxconn‘s (OTC:FXCN.F) FIH Mobile across North America and Europe in the first half of 2021. Unfortunately, these new phones probably won’t lift BlackBerry’s stock — which lost 30% of its value over the past 12 months amid concerns about its slowing growth.

Under CEO John Chen, who took the helm in 2013, BlackBerry phased out its dying hardware business and expanded its higher-growth software and services business. That painful process produced years of revenue declines, but BlackBerry finally started generating positive revenue growth again last year. The new, leaner BlackBerry generated two-thirds of its revenue from software and services last year, and the remaining third came from its “licensing and other” business.

The “licensing and other” segment generates royalties from BlackBerry’s portfolio of over 38,000 patents, as well as its brand licensing revenue from companies like TCL. The unit previously licensed the consumer version of BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) to Indonesia-based Emtek, but Emtek abandoned the struggling messaging app last year.

Blackberry hasn’t been a major player in the smartphone market for a long time. The phone brand was saved from complete extinction when TCL licensed the right to use the name in 2017. A short time later, India based Optiemus Infracom would also become a licensee and would release a few phones to the Indian market. Now it seems Blackberry phones may finally go the way of the dinosaur, as TCL recently announced it didn’t renew its license to produce Blackberry phones.  Optiemus Infracom still has a license for now, but it’s been a while since they’ve produced anything.

What all this means is that your options as a Blackberry fan are quite limited. The Key2 is the best, and the Key 2 LE is the only reasonable alternative. While both phones aren’t bad, they are also rocking out of date mid-range chipsets, meaning that it’s getting harder to recommend them unless you really can’t live without a keyboard. Here’s to hoping someone else (or even Blackberry itself) eventually starts making Blackberry phones again. 

Instead of shouldering all the overhead costs and risks of producing new phones, BlackBerry licensed its brand to lesser-known hardware makers. Nokia (NYSE:NOK) also adopted a similar strategy by licensing its smartphone brand to HMD Global and FIH Mobile.

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