If we never got the iPhone, this is the phone we’d all be stuck with

The BlackBerry Key2. You can continue to live without it.
The BlackBerry Key2. You can continue to live without it.
Image: BlackBerry
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The year 2008 was a different time. It was a time for trying new things. Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, the US elected its first African-American president, and many were swapping their flip phones for their first smartphones.

In 2008, that most likely meant a BlackBerry.

While Apple’s iPhone was introduced in the summer of 2007, its dominance was not a foregone conclusion. By the end of 2008, Apple had sold around 10 million iPhones—a far cry from the 45 million to 75 million it sells per quarter these days. BlackBerry had 14 million users and had generated $6 billion in revenue for the year. People were addicted to their email-friendly smartphones, which were (somewhat) affectionately referred to as “CrackBerries” by the mid-2000s.

After the iPhone was released, BlackBerry’s parent, Research in Motion (RIM), was unfazed by the revolutionary device. A tale from the time suggests that RIM founder Mike Lazaridis showed an iPhone to co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who was more concerned about how closely AT&T had worked with Apple on the device than what the sleek competitor could mean for his own business.

“It’s OK—we’ll be fine,” he reportedly told Lazaridis.

Well, they weren’t.

Within a few years, the world’s dominant smartphone manufacturer lost all but 1% of the market to Apple and devices running Google’s Android operating system. In 2016, it stopped producing smartphones altogether, instead focusing its operations on software and automotive services. In 2017, it generated around $1 billion in annual revenue.

But the world loves a comeback story. And now BlackBerry is back.

The BlackBerry Key2: A new hope

Much like Nokia, another 2000s telecoms powerhouse, BlackBerry is now licensing its name to another company to build its phones. Unlike Nokia, which rode a massive wave of nostalgia over its remastered simple phones, the devices that Chinese company TCL is putting out under the BlackBerry name feel as pointless as BlackBerry’s own desperate attempts to stay relevant as the iPhone rose to power.

At an event in New York earlier this month, the new BlackBerry Key2 was unveiled. It’s the successor to the first TCL-made BlackBerry released in April 2017, the KeyOne. For the last few weeks, I’ve been testing out the Key2, trying to figure out if there’s anything BlackBerry can bring to the table in 2018, anything that could possibly bring it back to its glory days where you’d hear the clickety-clack of users everywhere furiously typing away on their tiny keyboards.

It seems there is not.

BlackBerry actually unveiled its first touchscreen phone in 2008, the BlackBerry Storm, and spent years attempting to shoehorn what made the iPhone great into a box with a small keyboard attached to it. And the Key2, a decade later, makes the same struggle.

A silvery Key 2 resting on the equally angular Huawei MateBook Pro.
A silvery Key 2 resting on the equally angular Huawei MateBook Pro.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

The Key2 is effectively a smallish Android smartphone with a tiny 1.5-inch keyboard attached the bottom. It offers nothing that you can’t find better on other smartphones—its cameras are poor, its battery is average, the display is nothing special, and it is painfully slow—barring the physical keyboard. Even the software BlackBerrys used to be known for, including BlackBerry Messenger and the messaging hub, offer nothing special. (That being said, I couldn’t really test out Messenger as, this being 2018, I had no friends who still use BBM.) Sadly, TCL also didn’t include a version of BrickBreaker, the BlackBerry game that was nearly as addictive as the device itself, in the Key2.

For years, many held onto their BlackBerrys because they believed typing on a physical keyboard was far superior to tapping a piece of glass. Then Apple’s App Store opened up the iPhone to other companies and the resulting boom in apps led to an absolute revolution in how we use the internet. Many chose an iPhone or an Android just because of how many more apps and services they featured.

Another sequel nobody wanted

With the Key2, I have access to any app available on Android’s Google Play Store. In using them, I was constantly reminded how much of a chore it was to wait for apps to load—and wondering how much a physical keyboard was really worth. And after a decade of not using one, I actually found it quite difficult to navigate. The phone also doesn’t have many of the other modern conveniences that its competitors offer, such as water-resistance, wireless charging, or facial-recognition security. It’s a large, angular phone that doesn’t fit comfortably in your hand or pocket, gently stabbing you as you move, perhaps reminding you of your poor life decisions that have led up to you using a BlackBerry in 2018.

The Key2’s only really saving grace is that it costs $650. That’s far less than an iPhone X, a Samsung Galaxy S9 or Note 8, and a little less than an iPhone 8. But there are other, more powerful devices available for around that same price, including the Google Pixel 2 and the OnePlus 6.

In some counterfactual re-creation of history, where BlackBerry still reigned supreme and Apple had never decided to get into phones (and become the richest company in the US), its flagship phone in 2018 would probably look a lot like the Key2. It’s a mutant device that no one really needed, or asked for. But if it was all that was available, we’d begrudgingly get by with it. Thankfully, there are many better phones out there today.