Before the rise of iOS and Android, Nokia and Blackberry (nee RIM) were the top smartphone companies in the world. But they were also among the last companies to adopt a new operating system strategy in the wake of operating systems optimized for capacitive touchscreens. Nokia ultimately adopted Windows Phone and Blackberry released Blackberry 10. But neither operating system attracted a critical mass of popular apps and a dwindling number of phone supported those operating systems.
Indeed, while Microsoft, which purchased the Nokia phone business, can claim a smattering of phones that run the phone version of Windows 10, Blackberry per se has exited the phone business. Its last homegrown phone, the cult-favorite Priv, abandoned Blackberry 10.
Nokia and Blackberry still exist as companies developing telecom equipment for carriers and and enterprise mobile software. In 2017, though, the Nokia and Blackberry phone brands will rise again, this time in an alternate future where both companies embraced Android. And both phone brands will be used on devices made by licensees.
Blackberry, of course, has already based a few phones on designs from TCL, which also licenses the Alcatel brand. But TCL plans to expand the portfolio in 2017 to include Blackberry-branded devices. Nokia has licensed its brand to HMD Global, which has already begun releasing feature phones bearing the fabled name. It’s expected to start selling premium Android smartphones next year.
Between the two, TCL in some ways has the easier task. Blackberry-branded smartphones have continued to trickle into the market. TCL has seen strong growth with Alcatel models such as the gorgeous and well-appointed Idol 4S. And Blackberry’s security software is a clear differentiator, albeit one that has relatively limited appeal outside of regulated industries. Perhaps those long-abandoned Playbook owners may even see a new Blackberry-branded tablet.
The first few TCL-derived Blackberry designs have not been very distinctive, and indeed it may be challenging to produce something that evokes the brand — say, with a physical keyboard — that has broad appeal. However, using Android will certainly help bridge the productivity app gap. Blackberry is also not the first pioneering smartphone brand licensed by TCL. The company picked up the Palm trademark almost a year ago, but thus far has kept it on ice.
In contrast, expectations are unclear for what a Nokia-branded Android phone would bring beyond maybe a killer version of Snake (but that already exists). Nokia was once renowned for its phones’ imaging capabiltiies, but that is a field in which Apple, Samsung and now even Google (with its Pixel smartphone) have made strong inroads.
That said, the Nokia brand remains one of the world’s most recognized and there are of course still many consumers in the world that still have Nokia-branded devices. Much like Google with the Pixel, Nokia-branded smartphones have a window to gain some ground in the top end of the Android market after the disappointing showing of the LG G5 and the recall of the Galaxy Note 7.
It’s all but impossible for either the new stewards of the Blackberry and Nokia brands to return the status of those brands to the heights they once occupied, particularly as high-end smartphone sales are declining in saturated markets, but there’s a lot of potential upside between where those phone businesses are now and their glorious past.
The cost structures for the new licensees (the Nokia phones will be manufactured by Foxconn) are much lower than they were in their former companies, but the Chinese-produced smartphones will be slugging it out with other manufacturers with similar advantages such as Lenovo, Huawei and LeEco. In any case, the short-term future will provide a glimpse of what might have been for these storied smartphone brands.