In a conversation with Engadget, Franklin was eager to address some of these questions. And even when he declined to provide specifics, he laid out an ambitious — and in some ways surprising — vision for the BlackBerry of the near future.
The original plan, according to Franklin, was to build the “the most secure phone out there.” That’s the sort of angle that opens doors, but doesn’t usually translate to mass-market success. Over time, however, the team’s priorities came to include productivity, as evidenced by the number of times the word plastered on the OnwardMobility website. For now, the specifics are still shrouded in secrecy; Franklin wouldn’t elaborate on the new BlackBerry’s features apart from noting that the phone will pack “tons of unique experiences” and “security propositions.” Still, that newfound focus on getting things done helped widen the project’s scope considerably.
While OnwardMobility is eager to push new hardware at business and government customers, Franklin has committed to building this new phone with normal consumers in mind. “The only way to be successful with government and enterprise is if consumers want to use it too,” he said. “If your company makes you use this phone and you don’t like it, that’s not where we want to be.”
But here’s the thing: OnwardMobility’s definition of a phone consumers want to use seems totally different from TCL’s, or any of BlackBerry’s earlier licensing partners. Franklin describes the device the company plans to ship in the first half of 2021 as a consumer-first “global flagship” (his words, not mine) with a “world-class camera” and support for both sub-6 and mmWave 5G networks. And then there’s the keyboard. OnwardMobility confirmed in its press release that the new BlackBerry would indeed have a physical keyboard, but Franklin — a fan of the classic Bold 9900 — wouldn’t elaborate much on the phone’s design.
Of course, that might be because the design isn’t set in stone. According to Franklin, the team is collaborating closely with its partner FIH Mobile and has strong opinions about the device it wants to make, but still craves feedback. “We want to hear from the users,” he said.
With all that said, there is at least one aspect of BlackBerry production that Franklin seems especially adamant about. Security remains the biggest priority for OnwardMobility, and a big part of fully securing a smartphone in 2020 is securing its supply chain. That’s an exceptionally tough feat when you consider the lion’s share of the world’s hardware production happens within Chinese borders. FIH Mobile, Onward’s manufacturing partner, knows that all too well. While its parent company Foxconn is headquartered in Taiwan, most of its smartphone production happens across multiple factories in Shenzhen.
Not so for the BlackBerry: Franklin insists that the company’s forthcoming phone will be manufactured completely outside of mainland China. If that pans out, the likeliest candidates would be FIH’s facilities in Vietnam or India; the company has been boosting production capacity there as trade friction between the US and China continues to build. Producing a phone outside of China is one thing, but Franklin seems to be chasing an even more ambitious goal. “We want to be the most American-made phone out there,” he said. “The specifics of that and how we’re enabling that are to come.”