The DTEK60 is the latest device from BlackBerry Ltd. and may be the most advanced phone to ever bear the company's name, and at a relative bargain too. It may also be the last device the company distributes as it seeks to disentangle itself from direct involvement in the brutally competitive mobile hardware market.
Less than a month ago, CEO John Chen announced the company would transition entirely to a software licensing model, ending all "internal hardware development." He also announced a new model of partnership in Indonesia where BlackBerry offloads all the risk of distribution, manufacturing and marketing to a third party that would only release the phone in its territory.
The DTEK60 was made under a deal that pre-dates the Sept. 28 announcement, part of a manufacturing pact with Chinese smartphone maker TCL Corp. that will still see BlackBerry take on the distributor role with wireless carrier partners in Canada and elsewhere. Whether it is the last BlackBerry phone that might be distributed under this arrangement is unclear.
"This will be available round the world, it's an open distribution product," said Alex Thurber, senior vice-president of global devices sales for BlackBerry. "This is a great proofpoint to our licensing strategy, it fits into our journey towards licensing as we go forward."
It arrives at a moment of upheaval in the mobile phone market as Samsung, the global top-selling brand, reels under its exploding phone debacle, and when Google is morphing from being just the creator and software leader for the popular Android operating system to a hardware rival as it sells its pricey Pixel devices with exclusive features.
Even as BlackBerry takes a more hands-off approach to building the DTEK60, Mr. Thurber said the company is confident the phone will not burst into flames like the Samsung Note 7.
"We absolutely talked through the safety issues, the safety features, how we are able to ensure we have a safe device," he said. "I've learned more about battery chemistry than I ever thought I would in the last few weeks."
The DTEK60 is, on paper, one of the more impressive phones released under BlackBerry's brand. It boasts a 5.5-inch AMOLED screen – with size and resolution that makes it competitive with the iPhone 7 Plus – as well as impressive camera sensors (8 megapixel for selfies, 21 megapixels on the rear) and the first fingerprint sensor on a BlackBerry device.
Mr. Thurber said he has been using the phone since August, and frequently refers to the glass-backed device as "slick." The reference design appears to be the TCL 950, which has a Snapdragon 820 processor with 4 GB of ram, making it one of the fastest devices in its class. It will sell for just $650 in Canada without a contract, which is significantly cheaper than other devices with similar specs.
It is also an Android device, but runs BlackBerry's own security-focused flavour of the mobile operating system. It's been a year since BlackBerry launched its first Android-based device, the premium-priced Priv, which featured a full QWERTY physical keyboard hiding behind a sliding mechanism.
That jump to the Android platform was softened by the inclusion of those old friendly thumb-keys, the shape of which form the basis for BlackBerry's corporate logo – back when the company was called Research in Motion, they made for powerful branding of its e-mail pagers and eventually its pioneering smartphones. The new DTEK devices have so far been the more typical phone design – an all-glass front with software keyboard.
In recent years BlackBerry has offloaded many of the direct manufacturing and hardware design contracts and employees as it signed more outsourcing deals.
"Exiting hardware substantially reduces working capital requirements ($100-$150 million/quarter was tied to hardware). BBRY Mobility Solutions will now only license the BlackBerry brand and BBRY secured version of Android/applications (revenue per unit – fixed and tiered or as a per cent of sales). We estimate this is going to be a 90 per cent [plus] gross margin business if they can get it (first licensing customer BB Merah Putih in Indonesia; Indonesia has a 260 million population with 60 million BBM users – also late stage discussions in China and several in India)," wrote Raymond James analyst Steven Li back in September.
Mr. Thurber declined to offer any details on future BlackBerry devices, and didn't have any updates on the sales of the first phone in the TCL deal – the DTEK50, released in July – which he describes as a "fleet" device for enterprise users. BlackBerry's smartphone market share has been steadily declining since 2010, and hardware sales have hit new lows every year – in calender year 2013 BlackBerry's second quarter saw 3.7 million phones sold, in 2014 it fell to 2.1 million phones, in 2015 it moved only 800,000 units and this year it fell down all the way to 400,000 units.
The DTEK60 has a mid-range price on a competitively premium product (though like the Pixel is it not water-resistant), which has been a successful model for such Chinese Android phonemakers as Xoami, Oppo and Huawei. With Google moving upmarket and Samsung in the grip of a brand nightmare, BlackBerry might find space to land a legitimate smartphone hit, though Mr. Thurber doesn't like to think Samsung's struggles could contribute to the DTEK60's success.
"I would never suggest that creates an opportunity for us, I think it's just a situation where people need to be aware of what they are buying," he said. "Obviously this is a tragedy for Samsung, nobody would ever wish that on a friend or a foe, and Samsung is definitely a friend, they are a great strategic partner of ours."