KEY2 :: What makes a proper BlackBerry?

by Volker Weber

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What makes a BlackBerry a BlackBerry? I think the most defining property is the keyboard. The second defining property is software and security. But although there are three generations of software on these nine phones, they are all proper BlackBerrys. Let's zoom out for a moment:

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Yes, these are a lot of phones. And it's not even the complete collection. The first one on the left is the legendary BlackBerry Bold. It defined the category of the executive messaging phone. The last one on the right is the latest KEY2, and I will look at it in a couple of posts.

First row, third phone is the Bold 9900. People loved this thing, even when iPhones had taken over. BlackBerry made some attempts with touch devices, but none of them succeeded. They were buggy and late. The slider in the third row was an honest effort to deliver a larger screen, but it was top heavy and I found it inferior to the Bold 9900. So did everybody else. Why did people love love love the Bold 9900?

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It was the keyboard.It's hard to see but the keys are ever so slightly sculpted and you could write on this thing without looking. To this day I know how to write an @-sign. Hold down the alt key and hit the p. It's pure muscle memory.

Unfortunately, the software was completely outdated. Those weren't really smartphones and it was really hard to write software for different formfactors. So BlackBerry set out to build a new operating system, that was extremely well done, but failed to find customers. For many reasons, one of them being, that they started with a keyboardless Z10 and and only followed up with the keyboard Q10. Those are in the fourth column. The sixth phone in the first row is the Passport, which I still consider one of the best phones ever made.

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The seventh one is the Classic, where BlackBerry tried to recreate the Bold 9900, only with BB10, down to the trackpad that was missing on previous BB10 devices. It addressed the muscle memories of people still holding on to their Bold 9900. BB10 failed for many reasons. You had to set up new infrastructure (BES 10) and it had a huge app gap. You just could not get as many apps as on iOS or Android.

For that reason, BlackBerry switched to Android and launched the quite expensive PRIV and chose to build a slider, the least popular form factor for a BlackBerry. Sales of the PRIV were disappointing and BlackBerry started to get out of the handset business. TCL took two of their reference designs and the Android distribution made for the PRIV and manufactured the DTEK50 and DTEK60 for BlackBerry. Since this collaboration worked out OK, BlackBerry had an escape route to get out of the handset business. DTEK50 was moderately successful, despite having no keyboard. DTEK60 was not.

Now TCL set out to make proper BlackBerry phones with a keyboard. Thy licensed the name, set up shop as BlackBerry Mobile and launched the KEYone, to be followed up by the keyboardless Motion. Again the KEYone was more attractive to BlackBerry buyers and TLC started to build a successor..

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They KEYone got it almost right, but the design was a bit too flashy, it had medioce hardware (SD625, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage) and the keyboard was too small. Enter the KEY2, which doubles both RAM and storage (there is an option to go to 128 GB storage) and upgraded the chipset to SD660. Most importantly however, they improved the keyboard with taller keys that are easier to hit. And while my muscle memory still works perfectly, they also added a new key, pictured here next to the sym key. It's a shortcut key which allows for two sets of 26 speed keys to launch apps or functions. Hold down this key and then either short or long press on one of the 26 letter keys.

And what about the software? KEY2 ships with Android 8.1 on the May security update. That is already one month down, as are the KEYone and the Motion. Those two should get an upgrade to 8.1 soon, either in July or August. I believe that development resources are stretched out already. Only the PRIV has dropped out of support and nobody talks about upgrading DTEK50 and DTEK60 from Android 6. Even though TCL built them, these are not their phones.

It would probably be easier to recommend the KEY2 if it ran on AndroidOne. But that does not seem to be inline with customer demand from enterprise clients. They want the extra layer of security BlackBerry adds as well as their enterprise ready apps.

What makes a BlackBerry a proper BlackBerry? The keyboard. You know when you want one. It's that old muscle memory.


... your collection of devices?

Ahmad Masrieh, 2018-06-24

Yes. But I did not go further back than 10 years - no click wheel devices, no Pearl, no 8800 - and left out a few like the Storm.

Volker Weber, 2018-06-25

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I explain difficult concepts in simple ways. For free, and for money. Clue procurement and bullshit detection.


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