I’ve just returned from BlackBerry’s Mobile World Congress event, where I got to spend some time with the new BlackBerry KeyOne, an Android phone with an obvious difference. The KeyOne is a return to classic BlackBerry form, hitching a full physical keyboard to the bottom of a solidly built, decently specced Android device with a layer of BlackBerry security and apps spread atop Google’s Nougat. I like this phone for daring to be meaningfully distinctive, but I fear its fate has already been sealed by factors outside of its maker’s control.
TCL is the company that BlackBerry licensed its brand to for this model, and the KeyOne is the first fruit of that partnership that people can actually feel attracted to (as opposed to just being okay with having their employer issue them one). But the big problem here is the price of that attraction. In an unusual move for MWC, TCL actually announced a price and release window for the BlackBerry KeyOne, and while the April launch is reasonably imminent, the price of $549/ €599 is basically suicidal. It’s especially egregious in Europe, where it essentially puts the device on the top pricing tier.
Trying to compete with the established premium phones on the market is hard enough when you have the same specs as them. The KeyOne doesn’t have a premium-tier processor (even though the Snapdragon 625 that it does have is no slouch), it doesn’t have a premium-tier screen size with its 4.5-inch display, and it doesn’t have a proven premium-tier camera. I’m fond of saying that specs should take a backseat to real-world experience, but we all know that’s not how people shop for devices. The BlackBerry KeyOne loses any cross-comparison done in store, and moreover, it fails by not having the distribution agreements with carriers that will get it in stores in the first place.
So why do I call it noble? Because this BlackBerry-branded phone is the first we’ve seen in a long time that addresses the issue of messaging from a hardware perspective. There’s precious little room to innovate messaging input when everyone’s using the same touchscreen technology, which is why every other phone manufacturer has fixed its attention on camera tech. LG and Huawei are doing dual cameras, Sony has a triple imaging sensor, and everyone is quadrupling down on selfies. This show promises to be a total Mobile Camera Congress, if you’re concerned primarily with phone innovation.
Except this BlackBerry is about a different and, for some people, better form of input. I’ve grown far too accustomed to a touchscreen interface to say that typing with a physical keyboard is preferable for me, but I can see the appeal. I can see how muscle memory can kick in with real keys in a way that it never will with a flat surface. And the swiping interactions across the keyboard are actually really useful and neat. I used them to switch between home screens and scroll through theverge.com in Chrome and it was all very intuitive and natural. The BlackBerry UI tweaks also include tying shortcuts to particular keys, so you can just press "F" for Facebook, "Y" to launch YouTube, and so on.
A great deal of the appeal of the keyboard will be in how it allows you to keep the screen uncluttered, showing more information. That’s what makes it kind of okay to have a 4.5-inch display: you still see at least as much on screen as the regular Android phone user with the software keyboard up.
There are definitely things to like about this BlackBerry KeyOne. If it had a budget price, I could see quite a few people — not just the dwindling number of BlackBerry loyalists — giving it a shot and seeing if this different thing might actually be a better thing. But at a few euros shy of the top price tier, and without carriers pushing it into consumers’ minds and hands, the BlackBerry KeyOne just isn’t going to find many people giving it a chance. I could say that’s a shame, but in the next couple of days we’re going to see some truly amazing phones with extremely aggressive pricing and snazzier designs and feature sets than the KeyOne. That’s the just wildly, irrationally competitive landscape that TCL and BlackBerry are entering.
I don’t have high hopes for the KeyOne’s future, but I admire it as a successful effort to be distinctive and different.