BlackBerry declares ‘mission accomplished’ with KeyOne despite anemic sales

TCL, the budget phone maker that bought the rights to sell devices under the BlackBerry brand back in 2016, has come to Mobile World Congress 2018 with a positive message about the market response to its last flagship, the BlackBerry KeyOne. A year after the KeyOne’s launch at MWC 2017, this week I spoke with two senior members of the BlackBerry / TCL team, Francois Mahieu and Alain Lejeune, who expressed their collective belief that the KeyOne’s launch was an unqualified success. Lejeune is the global general manager for BlackBerry Mobile and Mahieu is in charge of marketing — and the latter was doing his job very well by noting that the phone has been made available across 50 countries and sold by more than 110 carriers.

But the reality just doesn’t agree with BlackBerry’s rosy outlook.

IDC’s Francisco Jeronimo, the same person who brought us word of Essential’s appalling sales last year, also has a number for shipped BlackBerry devices during 2017. This is rather difficult to obtain these days, given that BlackBerry’s mobile market share is only a fraction of a percentage point and the brand no longer appears on any lists of top-selling device manufacturers. According to Jeronimo, BlackBerry devices — all of them, not just the KeyOne — achieved a pitiful 850,000 shipments in all of last year. That’s superior only to the Essential Phone’s total shipments for the year, and that company didn’t even exist for most of 2017. By comparison HMD Global managed to sell 4.4 million Nokia-branded phones in just the fourth quarter of the year.

It’s not that BlackBerry is delusional or trying to be misleading. For the company, things like “channel presence” — meaning, literally, how present its products are in the most direct sales channels to potential customers — are a more important metric than actual sales. That’s what leads an executive like Mahieu to declare that BlackBerry is coming into 2018 “with a feeling of mission accomplished” following its first flagship launch as a united BlackBerry-TCL venture.

To give any device the best chance to succeed, its manufacturer needs to be able to distribute it effectively, and TCL clearly bought a very robust 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 hasn’t been there for BlackBerry.

Part of the problem, I learned this week, is that BlackBerry and TCL have work to do to educate their customers that BlackBerry no longer has its own operating system. Ironic that the company has to spend time to inform people about its lack of differentiation. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback that the company has received over the past year has been from people who like the BlackBerry name and reputation for security, but were long ago put off by the scarcity of popular apps on BlackBerry’s platform or a spec disadvantage relative to the latest and greatest Android phones. BlackBerry’s new mission is to now inform people that they can have all their favorite apps on a BlackBerry phone.

While I obviously don’t share BlackBerry’s enthusiasm for the KeyOne’s market performance, I do see sufficient differentiation and remaining brand cachet to keep the brand going. BlackBerry’s executives made the point to me that they’ve enjoyed a strong response in China because their phone stands out. In a land of iPhone copycats and emulators, a chunkier phone with a physical keyboard and a different user interface is differentiated by default.

TCL has promised at least two more BlackBerry phones for the remainder of 2018, so whatever happens, we’ll be seeing more of this stalwart brand in the coming months.