BlackBerry phones are back from the dead — with a real keyboard and 5G

BlackBerry Key2
The BlackBerry Key2 didn't sell well, but Onward Mobility is hoping to revive the brand with a 5G phone. (Image credit: Future)

At this point, BlackBerry's phones are making more comebacks than Elvis.

The once dominant smartphone, left in the lurch earlier this year when TCL announced it wasn't planning on making any more handsets on the BlackBerry name, is expecting to return in 2021 with both a physical keyboard and 5G connectivity. Onward Mobility says it's reached an agreement with BlackBerry and Foxconn subsidiary FIH Mobile where it will develop a BlackBerry 5G device.

"Our devices will be focused on security and productivity, and with all the attributes and functions of today’s most sophisticated smartphones — and then some — at a competitive price point," Onward Mobility CEO Peter Franklin said.

Details about the phone itself are scant at this point, as Onward Mobility isn't ready to talk specs, operating system or any of the other kinds of information you'd use to evaluate a smartphone. Onward Mobility also declined to provide to provide a price range for its device. All we know is that the 5G handset will have a keyboard — would it really be a BlackBerry if it didn't? — and that it will seemingly target enterprise workers who value productivity and security.

We thought we had seen the last of BlackBerry's phones back in February when TCL, which had the license to make and sell BlackBerry phones that last few years, announced that its rights to make phones under the BlackBerry name had come to an end. Instead, TCL has focused on developing its own phones, while BlackBerry has apparently lined up a new partner in Onward Mobility.

TCL's efforts with the BlackBerry lineup were admirable — we were particularly impressed with the BlackBerry KeyOne, a 2017 release that delivered an Android device with a long-lasting battery and a physical keyboard. A follow-up, the BlackBerry Key2, was less impressive, and the lower cost BlackBerry Key2 LE underscored one of the problems with these phones — they were pretty pricey considering the processor was usually a step or two behind the leading Android flagships.

We've got some time before the 5G BlackBerry phone makes its scheduled arrival during the first half of 2021, but Onward Mobility has already indicated why it think the new device will resonate with more would-be users. Its announcement highlighted the large numbers of employees having to work at home in the wake of coronavirus pandemic who will need to securely access critical data and applications. The idea is that BlackBerry's security software will tick off that box, and the phone's physical keyboard will help people work more productivity away from the office.

Of course, the work climate is different in other ways too since the last BlackBerry phone debuted. The iPhone, which supplanted the BlackBerry as the leading mobile device, has only strengthened its hold on the market thanks in no small part to both its vast App Store and its pace-setting processors. The A14 chip slated to debut in the iPhone 12 in the coming months only figures to make the iPhone an even more formidable competitor for a new BlackBerry device. And on the Android side, there's phablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra that offer a giant screen, the ability to connect wirelessly with Miracast-enabled displays and a more responsive S Pen.

That makes for a tough market for BlackBerry to enter next year. But Onward Mobility and its partners have a lot of time between now and then to sort things out.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.