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New BlackBerry smartphone to debut in 2021 with physical keyboard and 5G

Jasper Hart
August 19, 2020

American startup OnwardMobility at the development reins

BlackBerry phones are set to return to the smartphone market next year in North America and Europe thanks to an American startup.

OnwardMobility has reached an agreement with BlackBerry to develop, engineer and bring to market a device described by its CEO Peter Franklin as a “5G flagship Android” smartphone.

The company is aiming for a launch in the first half of 2021. It has not yet disclosed any device specifications, but it has confirmed an Android OS, 5G capability and a keyboard, as well as “competitive” pricing.

Under the terms of the agreement, Foxconn subsidiary FIH Mobile will be responsible for device manufacturing.

TCL had the licence to make and sell BlackBerry devices from 2016 until earlier this year, when it announced it would stop doing so from August 31. However, the manufacturer confirmed it would still provide software and security updates and customer service for existing BlackBerry smartphones for up to two years after this date.

OnwardMobility was founded last year with the aim of building a smartphone with security as a key selling point, and began working with BlackBerry in November last year.

Since stepping back from the device space, BlackBerry has made moves into cybersecurity, acquiring software firm Cylance for $1.4 billion last year.

Security stress

Speaking to Mobile News, Franklin said that the remote working induced by the Covid-19 pandemic had highlighted the needs for strong device security to consumers and businesses alike, although OnwardMobility began development before it started.

“We’ve seen security-conscious customers have a whole new threat landscape to deal with and security is more important with working from home,” he said. “Whereas enterprises used to have their employees in a locked down environment, now everyone is remote and that exposes additional threats.

“The BlackBerry brand carries a lot of weight and loyalty and I think there will be a lot of enterprises, government agencies and consumers who will be interested in the phone that is to come,” he added.

Additionally, he said that developing a 5G device required staying up-to-date with an emerging threat landscape.

“All new technologies bring both opportunity and potential problems. Partly, it’s about making sure you’re protected on a 5G network,” he said.

“The other side of the coin is the use cases unlocked with 5G around security such as low latency. There’s a lot you can do that you might not have been able to do previously.”

Franklin would not disclose precise distribution and operator partnerships at this stage, but said that OnwardMobility was “actively talking” to distributors and operators. While the device is set for a launch in North America and Europe initially, Franklin envisions it as a “global flagship”.

He also added that the company would look to establish an employee footprint in important markets. Currently, the Austin-based firm has employees in Seattle, San Francisco and BlackBerry’s headquarters in Waterloo, Canada.

BlackBerry CEO John Chen added: “BlackBerry is thrilled OnwardMobility will deliver a BlackBerry 5G smartphone device with physical keyboard leveraging our high standards of trust and security synonymous with our brand. We are excited that customers will experience the enterprise and government level security and mobile productivity the new BlackBerry 5G smartphone will offer.”

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