TCL, the manufacturer of budget phones that bought the rights to sell devices under the BlackBerry brand in 2016, arrived at the Mobile World Congress 2018 with a positive message about the market response to its latest flagship, the BlackBerry KeyOne. One year after the release of KeyOne at MWC 2017, this week I spoke with two BlackBerry / TCL team members, Francois Mahieu and Alain Lejeune, who expressed their collective belief that the release of KeyOne was a resounding success. Lejeune is the global general manager of BlackBerry Mobile and Mahieu is in charge of the commercialization, and the latter did his job very well by noting that the phone has been made available in 50 countries and sold by more than 110 operators.
But the reality simply does not match BlackBerry's optimistic outlook.
Francisco Jerónimo of IDC, the same person who informed us about the terrible sales of Essential last year, also has a number for BlackBerry devices sent during 2017. This is quite difficult to get now, given that the market share of devices BlackBerry mobile is only a fraction of a percentage point and the brand no longer appears in any list of top-selling device manufacturers. According to Jerónimo, BlackBerry devices, all of them, not just KeyOne, achieved a deplorable 850,000 shipments in the last year. That's just higher than the total number of Essential Phone shipments in the year, and that company did not even exist for most of 2017. By comparison, HMD Global managed to sell 4.4 million Nokia brand phones in the fourth quarter of the year.
It's not that BlackBerry is illusory or is trying to be deceptive. For the company, things like "presence of channels" – that is, literally, how present their products are in the most direct sales channels for potential customers – are a metric more important than real sales. That is what leads an executive like Mahieu to declare that BlackBerry will reach 2018 "with a sense of mission accomplished" after its first launch as a BlackBerry-TCL joint venture.
To give any device the best chance of success, its manufacturer needs to be able to distribute it effectively, and TCL clearly purchased a very strong network of existing relationships along with the BlackBerry brand. What the dissonance between widespread distribution and anemic sales shows is that the consumer response simply has not been there for BlackBerry.
Part of the problem, I learned this week, is that BlackBerry and TCL have a lot of work to do to educate their customers that BlackBerry no longer has its own operating system. It's ironic that the company has to spend time informing people about its lack of differentiation. One of the most consistent comments the company has received over the last year has been from people who like the name and reputation of BlackBerry security, but it's been a long time since the shortage of popular applications on the BlackBerry platform has made them harmed. relative to the latest and best Android phones. The new mission of BlackBerry is to inform people that they can have all their favorite applications on a BlackBerry phone.
While obviously I do not share the enthusiasm of BlackBerry for the performance of the KeyOne market, I do see a sufficient differentiation and the seal of the remaining brand to keep the brand going. The BlackBerry executives told me that they have enjoyed a solid response in China because their phone stands out. In a country of iPhone imitators and emulators, a thicker phone with a physical keyboard and a different user interface is different by default.
TCL has promised at least two more BlackBerry phones for the rest of 2018, so whatever happens, we'll see more of this unconditional mark in the coming months.