Almost like a couple that went on a few dates to gauge compatibility, TCL has made its courtship with BlackBerry official at CES 2017, with the two announcing a partnership to utilize their respective resources.
In some respects, it appears to be a marriage of convenience, if only because each side has something the other wants. Granted, every corporate collaboration is generally a quid pro quo designed to benefit both sides, and this one is no different. While neither an acquisition nor a merger, the level of cooperation will be substantial.
Steve Cistulli, president and general manager of TCL in North America, spoke to a group of reporters in Las Vegas, including MobileSyrup, flanked by BlackBerry executives, to outline why such a step was taken, and how it will work.
The short of it is that TCL gets BlackBerry’s enterprise knowledge and resources, while BlackBerry gets a dedicated partner willing to design and manufacture new devices with its branding. This move flies in the face of BlackBerry CEO John Chen’s move to get out of the hardware business and fully pivot to a leaner software and services company, except it also conforms to his interest in developing licensing deals with other vendors.
While BlackBerry hardware appeared dead in the water not so long ago, this arrangement breathes new life into it for a couple of reasons. First, rebadging hardware will apparently never happen again. The DTEK50 was a rebadged version of TCL’s Alcatel Idol 4, and the DTEK60 strongly resembled the Idol 4S.
Moving forward, any BlackBerry-branded hardware will have its own design. Alcatel will continue on with its own devices, and the Idol line isn’t going to be scrapped as a result of this deal, according to Cistulli.
The second is that BlackBerry won’t cede security software development to TCL. All the Android apps and security updates it rolls out will continue in-house in Canada, albeit with closer cooperation. The intricacies of this new arrangement may not have fully been determined, and Cistulli forecasts 2018 to be the year where the partnership bears fruit for both sides. What is unclear is whether BlackBerry will play any real role in developing software security for Alcatel-branded devices, something that would be “open for discussion,” according to Cistulli.
TCL has no real presence in the enterprise space, and it’s a market he believes has room to grow. Rather than hone in on specs, the focus should be on value proposition as it relates to features, user experience and security, he said. TCL has made a foray into smart home devices and other Internet of Things (IoT) projects, yet has no foothold in that area, either. BlackBerry’s emphasis on those things is supposed to bridge the gap.
Financial considerations for the partnership weren’t mentioned, but money was undoubtedly a big part of this. TCL’s deeper pockets may not only cover manufacturing and distribution, but funds for marketing BlackBerry devices to enterprise customers are likely part of the deal. BlackBerry’s marketing strategy, or lack thereof, has long been a source of criticism for the company, even before Chen took the reins.
A key challenge in making this work will be doing business with the carriers, who can more easily sell to businesses. It’s actually one of the end-of-year goals for 2017. A consumer strategy for BlackBerry appears to be non-existent, since TCL devices will be positioned for the masses instead.
A new BlackBerry device called “Mercury,” previously teased by Cistulli, was unveiled at the event. Resembling BlackBerrys of years past with new twists, this still unnamed Android-based handset sports a physical QWERTY keyboard with the spacebar doubling as a fingerprint sensor. The keyboard itself is capacitive, where swiping and scrolling a la the Priv or Passport is built-in as well.
No specs were provided, but it is confirmed to have a 4.5-inch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. It is about the same height as the Priv, with an aluminum frame and soft textured rubberized back for easy gripping. The rear camera lens is fairly sizeable. Stereo speakers are lined on the bottom edge, flanking a USB-C port. The headphone jack is on the top. The convenience key used in the DTEK devices will also be included in this new phone as well.
The hardware design is final, whereas the software was in alpha and not even close to finished. Playing around a little with the device showed that too, but I did find it responsive and quick. There was no way to confirm the processor, camera, internal storage or other key specs. It will have a single slot for a nano SIM and microSD card for memory expansion.
Availability and pricing weren’t mentioned, as those details will be revealed, along with the spec list, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 27th to March 2nd.
Though BlackBerry says it’s “committed to BB10,” there will be no new hardware devices released running the operating system. BlackBerry’s current commitment is to keep updating the operating system in order to support the hardware devices that are out in the wild or still sitting in retail inventory. BlackBerry says it has topped manufacturing these devices anyway.
Somewhat surprisingly, Alex Thurber, BlackBerry’s senior vice president of global device sales, stated that the company is “very happy with DTEK50 sales,” noting interest from large corporate customers. The DTEK60 is also “meeting sales targets.” It never reveals sales figures by device, nor what the projections were, so it’s unclear how modest the goals might be.
“More than a licensing deal, it’s a strong partnership” is how Cistulli described the details of the announcement, but only time will tell how mutually lucrative the deal turns out be.
Update 4:45 01/04/16: BlackBerry reached out to MobileSyrup to reiterate its commitment to BB10, citing the recent release of BB10.3.3 as an example. Furthermore, a representative of the company says, “Regarding new BlackBerry 10 hardware, the company hasn’t commented on the future roadmap.”