BlackBerry seeks to reshape perceptions with launch of Passport
David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, September 24, 2014 6:18AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, September 24, 2014 5:22PM EDT
TORONTO -- Whether you love BlackBerry or hate it, the Canadian smartphone maker is banking on its new Passport device to help reshape perception of the company in a highly competitive market.
"We are determined to win back the Canadian home crowd," chief executive John Chen told the audience at the Toronto launch on Wednesday that included an appearance by Wayne Gretzky.
"If you guys don't support us, then you've got some problems," he joked.
Rather, it might be BlackBerry that faces more problems if the Passport doesn't catch on with the business users it wants to attract.
Nearly a year ago, Chen was brought on board at the struggling company to help dig it out of a financial pit and reshape its business model. So far, he has completed a major restructuring of its operations through cost cuts, layoffs and a shift in the company's overall strategy.
The Passport is the next step.
The device is comparable in size to a Canadian passport, a point which Chen demonstrated by placing the phone against the government-issued identification booklet. It has a square screen that measures 11.4 cm (4.5 inches) diagonally and a keyboard the company said is four times more accurate for the user than the phone's competitors.
However, CIBC analyst Todd Coupland said BlackBerry will need more than just one unique and marketable product to recover its presence in the technology sector.
"Does this by itself flip the switch for BlackBerry and turn them around? I don't think so," he said.
"Chen has made some reasonable first steps. He's had a pragmatic approach, and this is another OK step, but (they've) got a ways to go still."
Priced at $699 in Canada before carrier subsidies, the Passport is angled towards health care professionals, government workers and the military, sectors in the market that embrace technology through big orders and stick with a device for years.
Together the target market -- people who use their smartphones mostly for work -- represents about 30 per cent of mobile phone users, Chen said.
Among the Passport's defining features is a wider screen, which makes the phone ideal for viewing documents and spreadsheets, the company says. The keyboard has also been reworked from previous BlackBerry models to remove a row of keys and merge the space bar into the bottom row.
The number keys and other functions are now incorporated into an on-screen extension of the keyboard.
It's a different look for BlackBerry that may take some getting used to, though Chen said he believes it will change how business professionals use their mobile devices.
"I no longer bring any laptops around when I go to business meetings," he added. "This is powerful enough as a tool."
Aside from the new phone, the company also showcased its new BlackBerry Blend application, which securely links a user's smartphone and data like email, BBM and other documents, seamlessly with their nearby computer or tablet through the Internet.
When asked why Canada was a priority for BlackBerry, Chen said he believes it's important to recapture the audience who first embraced the phone.
"It'll take time," he said. "The best place to start is at the home team plate."
Before the end of this year, the Passport is expected to be available in 30 countries. In Canada, the phone will be sold by all three major wireless carriers, Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Bell (TSX:BCE) and Telus (TSX:T).
Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy models have been encroaching on the business market where BlackBerry was once considered nearly untouchable with its dominant market share. The company has responded by opening up its secure enterprise platform to support Apple and Android smartphones in the workplace.
It has also recently announced a partnership with Amazon's app store that makes about 20,000 Android apps available on BlackBerry, including Netflix, Intstagram and Pinterest. They had been unavailable without using software hacks.
Later this year, the company will also release BlackBerry Classic, a new take on its popular older smartphones which Chen expects will appeal to a broad customer base.
"On a volume basis I think the Classic will (sell) more," he said, declining to give sales projections for either phone, but suggesting that the company could move into regions with less mobile penetration.
"We could capture new markets and new users with the Classic."
Also on the schedule are numerous software updates, including BlackBerry Enterprise Server 12, a refreshed version of its management system for IT professionals who oversee employee phones.
Attention shifts to BlackBerry's (TSX:BB) second-quarter financial results on Friday. While Chen declined to discuss specifics, he said progress has been made in improving the company's books.
BlackBerry shares closed nine cents lower cents at $11.61 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.