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New BlackBerry smartphone sees light of day


NEW YORK—After numerous delays that cast doubt on whether a new BlackBerry would ever see the light of day, Canada’s smartphone pioneer revealed its new phones January 29—products it hopes will revitalize its competitive edge. The company formerly known as Research In Motion—and now simply BlackBerry—will unleash a new smartphone in Canadian stores February 5, chief executive Thorsten Heins told an eager crowd of fans in New York. The US release date is a little later, in March.

The BlackBerry Z10, a touchscreen model, will be the first to hit the shelves while the BlackBerry Q10, which will have a physical keypad, follows in April. While the physical keyboard has long been an essential and beloved tool of so-called CrackBerry addicts, the move to release the touchscreen first was signalled by the company last spring. The splashy Manhattan unveiling, which was beamed by satellite around the world to cities including London, Dubai, Paris and Toronto, was as much a makeover as it was a product launch.

Heins quickly did away with the confusing, and perhaps outdated, Research In Motion moniker that had represented the Waterloo, Ontario company since it was founded in 1984, long before the BlackBerry was created. While the name change won’t be made official on the stock exchanges until February 4, the company’s executives were quick to switch.

This is a “new day in the history of the BlackBerry,” Heins proclaimed shortly after taking the stage at Pier 36, a massive entertainment venue on the shores of the East River to an enthusiastic reception. Whether anyone else is buying into a new BlackBerry remains to be seen.

The revamped models, which are powered by a whole new operating system, are widely seen as a make-or-break product for the company. After two major delays some in the technology sector had grown skeptical over whether the former RIM would survive long enough in its current form to get the phones to the market. Sales figures won’t be made public for weeks, or months, as a staggered launch around the world complicates how to gauge whether the new phone is considered a success. Among the features being touted at Wednesday’s event:

  • As you type, the operating system predicts what word you want and you can swipe to have it auto-completed;
  • BlackBerry Hub acts as one place for all incoming messages, email, BBM, social media;
  • BlackBerry Balance then allows one phone to operate as both a business and personal device entirely separate from each other; and
  • Apps have been divided into two sections by tabs at the top of the screen, labelled Personal and Work.

The BlackBerry 10 devices were originally due for release last year but Heins decided they still weren’t ready for the public, even though they had already been delayed once before. It was one of the difficult decisions the CEO had to make when he took over the top position last January from then co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. He also dug deep into the company’s operations to cut costs, which included closing manufacturing facilities and making thousands of job cuts.

Before sales numbers provide the true measure of success, the first hurdles to overcome will be the opinions of tech analysts and reaction from investors. The BlackBerry maker’s shares closed down 11.8 percent, or $1.85, to $13.86 on the Toronto Stock Exchange where about 22.7 million of its shares were traded on Wednesday. Telecom analyst Troy Crandall said a major reason for the stock’s drop was the staggered launch of the phone, which has left potential US consumers waiting until March.

“That kind of puts RIM into a more congested period for the launch where there’s potential for Apple to make an announcement about iOS 7,” he said, referring to a refreshed operating system for the iPhone. More than 25 percent of the BlackBerry maker’s shares are still held by short sellers, who are betting against the success of BB10, said Crandall, of Montreal-based investment firm MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier. Heins walked a careful path of both acknowledging RIM’s origins while insisting that things had changed. He paid a brief tribute to Lazaridis and Balsillie’s work to build the BlackBerry brand, but then also signalled the future.

“We intend … to lead the move from mobile communications to true mobile computing,” he said.

Heins took pages from the past successes of RIM. At the New York and Toronto events, everyone who attended received a free BlackBerry Z10, the touchscreen phone, to take home and play with. Years earlier, Balsillie did the same with the then unknown BlackBerry device at high-profile technology conferences. He also acknowledged that while the new BlackBerry models will start with a touchscreen version, the company is still well aware that many of its customers prefer the more traditional keypad model.

“We heard you loud and clear,” Heins told the audience. “We built this for those people who said they just had to have the physical keyboard typing experience.”

The BlackBerry Z10’s price will vary by carrier, but the company said it will sell for around $149.99 on a three-year contract. Pricing for the physical keyboard model was not released. Rogers, Bell, Telus, Virgin, SaskTel, Koodo, and Fido are among the carrier partners in Canada, while Walmart, Future Shop, Best Buy, and The Source are some of the retail partners.

Executives also highlighted the new apps available on the phones, including Skype, Kindle and Angry Birds. Notably absent from the initial list were top-downloaded apps like Netflix and Instagram, though the company assured that it would aggressively pursue partnerships with other companies to carry their apps.

In one of the more unusual announcements from the event, the company said that singer Alicia Keys would take the decidedly corporate title of global creative director and act as a brand champion at various events, including the Super Bowl. Heins noted that Keys brings a “vast network of relationships in the entertainment, social media and business communities,” to the company. Her role will include creating music videos with the new BlackBerry phone at each stop on her upcoming tour, which kicks off in March.

Neither would say how long the singer would operate as a representative of the company, though Keys said it would be “for as long as we are being creative together, and that will be a long time.”

The BlackBerry has dramatically lost marketshare in recent years. Several network outages left customers without the use of the smartphones they had come to rely on, while the BlackBerry’s hardware hadn’t received a significant upgrade in years.

—with files from Michael Oliveira in Toronto.