BlackBerry KEYone sales delayed a month to meet demand, TCL CEO says

Those among the 275M BlackBerry customers who want a new phone with a hardware keyboard will have to wait a little longer

Enterprise customers eager to get their hands on the new BlackBerry KEYone, with its old-fashioned hardware keyboard, will have to wait another month until its May 31 release.

The delay isn't expected to hurt sales much, analysts said, partly because there are 275 million BlackBerry customers worldwide — many of whom may want a newer phone with physical keys. Hardware keyboards have been a hit for years in countries like India and Indonesia, which are mainstays of the BlackBerry and BlackBerry Messenger.

The May 31 launch date for KEYone sales in the U.S. and Canada was announced Wednesday by TCL Communication. TCL is licensed by BlackBerry to make the Android device.

In an email to Computerworld, TCL North America President Steve Cistulli said the delay was needed to ramp up production due to overwhelming demand.

"TCL Communication has grown to be a top-5 smartphone [manufacturer] in North America by focusing on delivering great quality and value, and this remains true with our BlackBerry Mobile devices – beginning with the BlackBerry KEYone," he said.

"Make no mistake, the innovations found in the BlackBerry KEYone are distinctly different than anything else available to consumers today. Launching at the end of May allows us to meet the overwhelming demand for this new BlackBerry smartphone, ensuring all of our partners – including nearly all the tier one carriers in North America – can meet their respective customer needs. It also ensures that those customers get the highest in quality and performance that they demand in a BlackBerry smartphone."

TCL showed the new device at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February, saying it would ship globally sometime in April with a U.S. pricetag of $549.

On March 31, Cistulli tweeted that the KEYone wouldn't be available until sometime "in May," indicating that "excitement from the BlackBerry community has been so tremendous it is exceeding our initial supply."

He also tweeted that production of the KEYone was underway, "but we want to be certain we can meet our customer demands."

The delay angered a few Twitter followers, including Pratik Dixit who called it "disappointing" and tweeted that "delivering in the time frame promised should be a priority."

Some analysts were more forgiving, arguing that a one-month delay in a product rollout is not that serious.

"It's better to get it right than to get it out quickly," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "Four or five weeks' delay is not that big of a deal, but if it keeps slipping, that's an issue."

Gold said the delay might be due to adding a new version of Android 7.1 to the smartphone. "TCL is a credible organization, so I can't imagine the delay is due to something bad," he said.

Ironically, Gold said the lack of a high profile for TCL and the new KEYone wouldn't hurt the company or sales of the smartphone. "The KEYone doesn't have the visibility of the Samsung Galaxies or the iPhone, so the delay is probably not going to hurt them that much," he said.

Gold said there are probably many BlackBerry customers who are eager to get a new hardware-enabled keyboard on a phone that also supports a touchscreen. "People are waiting for physical keyboards, since there aren't that many choices in the market," he said.

He said it's easy to predict there will be buyers for the KEYone in countries like India and Indonesia, where the BlackBerry became popular partly because of the security on its phones.

IDC analyst Bryan Bassett said the rollout delay won't be a big problem for TCL/Blackberry. "Consumer demand can only go up from where it is now, and I think it would be far more damaging to the BlackBerry brand to release a device with problems than to release it later than expected," Bassett said.

"This is BlackBerry’s first licensed device to market, so making sure they take the time necessary to get it right is crucial, especially if they plan to be successful in their licensing model going forward," Bassett added.

The device has a 4.5-in. touchscreen and 52 raised hardware keys in four rows at the bottom. Each of the hardware keys can double as a customizable shortcut; for example, the "F" key when touched can be a quick path to reach Facebook.

It includes a 3,505 mAh battery that can be charged to 50% in 36 minutes and a speedy SnapDragon 625 processor. It also has a 12-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front camera.

Even with some BlackBerry fans eager to get a new phone with a hardware keyboard, TCL faces an uphill battle in the market. BlackBerry currently has less than 1% market share globally.

Cistulli wants to beef up the BlackBerry 1% share in the U.S. to 3% by 2020 and its 5% share in Canada to 8% to 10%. "We will compete directly with Apple and Samsung," he said in February, referring to the world's two biggest phone makers.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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