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Texas startup dials up plans to reboot once-popular BlackBerry phone

BlackBerry was discontinued in 2016. One Austin company has plans to bring it back. Blackberry.com

A Texas company is dialing up a comeback for the once pervasive BlackBerry.

OnwardMobility, an Austin startup that produces mobile devices, said August 19 that it had sealed a deal with BlackBerry and FIH Mobile to resurrect the device. In the first half of 2021, Onward Mobility plans to roll out a 5G BlackBerry Android smartphone equipped with an old-school QWERTY keyboard. It'll be available in North America and Europe. Onward Mobility says it will collaborate on both design and production of the device.

"With the increasing number of employees working remotely with critical data and applications, coupled with the constant threat of cyberattacks, there is an absolute need for a secure, feature-rich 5G-ready phone that enhances productivity," OnwardMobility says in a release. "Employees are demanding better workplace technology experiences, and organizations are facing increasingly complex challenges in selecting, deploying, securing, and managing devices to meet expectations and maximize employee productivity."

In a YouTube video announcing the deal, OnwardMobility CEO Peter Franklin says 5G-enabled BlackBerry devices will be more than "nice to have" but also will be a "critical need."

"Consumers are looking for a more secure choice for their smartphone purchases," Franklin says, "and they're ready for a sleek device built around security and productivity from the ground up."

TCL Communication said in February that it would stop selling BlackBerry-branded phones effective August 31 because it had lost the rights to keep designing, manufacturing, and selling them. BlackBerry discontinued making phones in 2016. Later that year, TCL picked up the licensing rights for BlackBerry-branded Android smartphones.

Now, OnwardMobility owns those rights.

Reporting on the BlackBerry-TCL breakup, Business Insider observed that TCL's discontinuation of the phones marked the end of an era for a brand that commanded almost one-fifth of the global phone market just a decade ago. "But as it struggled to keep pace with smartphones as the iPhone and Android rose to popularity, BlackBerry slowly faded out of relevance when it came to the global smartphone market," Business Insider said.

A BlackBerry history published by Harvard Business School's Digital Initiative described the brand as "the world's original smartphone leader." The original company, founded in 1984, rolled out its first mobile phone in 2000.

"Over the ensuing decade, the BlackBerry became the device of choice in corporate America due to its enterprise-level security and business functionality. Even after the competitive entry of the iPhone in 2007 and Google's Android OS in 2008, BlackBerry was certainly not destined for failure," says the history, noting that the brand dominated the smartphone market through 2010.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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