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CES 2017: Zombie phone brands Nokia and BlackBerry return from the grave

January 9, 2017 5:36 AM
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Thousands of tech enthusiasts descending on Las Vegas for CES last week may have felt like they'd seen a ghost or two, with smartphones bearing the names of Nokia and BlackBerry appearing like apparitions among the futuristic robots and shiny new things.

Yet while it might seem that a pair of established names in the smartphone business have returned to take a step into the present day with modern Android devices, the fact is the names are almost literally the only thing with history here.

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In both cases the famous names have been licensed to phone-makers you've probably never even heard of, which are now attempting to leverage the brand familiarity for their new machines. In fact the Nokia 6 — which might be any other generic Android phone if it wasn't for the branding, and which will be available soon exclusively in China — is HMD Global's very first smartphone.

This is not to say the phone will be bad — HMD is a Finnish venture that was put together specifically for the purpose of making Nokia phones and tablets, and is run by former Nokia executives — merely that it shouldn't be ascribed any ideas of worth or nostalgia earned by the Nokia we know and love from a time before it was beaten out of the industry by Apple and Samsung.

In a press release HMD makes much of the rigour involved in machining the aluminum unibody for the phone, and the specs sheet — Snapdragon 430 processor, 4GB RAM, 5.5-inch full HD screen covered by Gorilla Glass — reads like that of a totally competent Android. Yet the company's ability to deliver on its hype is as yet totally untested, and while it frames the decision to release only in China as "strategically important", it could just as easily be read as a reluctance to ship in the more discerning markets of the West.

The more interesting phone for the local audience, perhaps, is the BlackBerry Mercury.

The right to make phones and call them 'BlackBerry' was acquired in 2016 by China's TCL. Best known in Australia for its budget TVs and its phone-making subsidiary Alcatel, it is also the company that quietly built the final phones for the original Blackberry company, the DTEK50 and DTEK60 (which were largely repackaged Alcatel Idols).

Unlike the Nokia 6, the Mercury — which is the prototype BlackBerry TCL was showing off at CES — doubles down by actually looking somewhat like the devices that made its name. Sporting a physical keyboard and a leather-like back, its designers have worked hard to make sure you know this is a Blackberry. It's the first TCL-made device that was designed to be a BlackBerry from the get-go, and in that sense it could be an exciting relaunch for the brand, but it's miles away from being as relevant as the phones were in 2013.

TCL has stated it intends to woo back the business customers its predecessor failed to hang on to, but it will likely need to do more than just look like a BlackBerry to do that. The other traditional appeal of the devices — security — will arguably be just as important.

Details on the Mercury were sparse in Las Vegas, although it does appear to pack the same touch-sensitive keyboard as the BlackBerry Priv, run a familiar suite of security-focused Android apps (which the original BlackBerry still makes), and feature a fingerprint scanner on the space bar.


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January 9, 2017 5:36 AM

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