BlackBerry Ltd. is moving to reverse years of product disappointments with the launch of Passport, an oversized smartphone that marks a new chapter for the fallen technology star.
Combining the touch screen of a tablet with a smartphone, Passport is the first of a handful of new phones and software systems the company is rolling out in the coming months to rebuild its almost non-existent share of a smartphone market it virtually invented in 1998 with the first BlackBerry.
New chief executive officer John Chen set the tone for the company’s hoped-for rebirth Wednesday in a presentation at a Toronto sports bar by saying the “extreme turmoil” and “pain” of BlackBerry’s restructuring is over as “we move to the next level of production.”
After years of overpromising and under-delivering new devices, Mr. Chen said the company has narrowed its ambitions by focusing on a product for professional users, with a specific focus initially on its loyal Canadian base. Playing to the business audience, Mr. Chen stressed the phone’s long battery life (36 hours), document friendly tools (spreadsheets) and unique medical imaging applications (x-rays and cardiograms.)
On day one, Passport appeared to be drawing interest from business loyalists.
“I really want to get my hands on one and see it and try it out,” said Dan Pinnington, a long-time BlackBerry user and vice-president with the Lawyers Professional Indemnity Co., a provider of malpractice insurance.
Chris Froggatt, Ottawa-based managing director of National Public Relations, said he was planning to switch to Apple’s iPhone until he watched online video reviews of Passport Wednesday. “I’ll give these guys another shot and see if they’ve done it right.”
BlackBerry will need a lot more believers before it can claim
success with Passport, but the company has set such modest goals for the device that it is
winning credibility with some financial analysts and tech journalists.
“BlackBerry finally has a little of its swagger back,” said Fast Company writer Harry McCracken, who, despite issues with Passport’s bulky size and finicky apps, found it “inventive in a way that few phones, BlackBerry or otherwise, have been in eons.”
Mr. Chen has set an ambition for Passport to capture just 2 per cent of the global smartphone market.
According to independent market research firm IDC, BlackBerry accounted for merely 0.5 per cent of the 301 million smartphones sold globally in the second quarter of 2014, a humbling fall from 13 per cent in 2011.
“They only need to sell a modest amount for it to be a success,” said Colin Gillis, a financial analyst with BGC Financial in New York.
An early champion is BlackBerry’s largest shareholder and Fairfax Financial Holding chairman Prem Watsa, who attended the launch and praised the company’s ability to deliver a reliable product.
After the company’s stumbles with its Z10 phone in early 2013 and the PlayBook tablet in 2011 he said in an interview that “I’m really very excited” about the quality and reliability of Passport. “In business it is all about execution and John Chen is showing us we’re really back.”
Playing to the home crowd, Mr. Chen, a Hong Kong-born engineer who currently lives in California, invited Wayne Gretzky on stage to repeat his famous hockey mantra about the importance of skating to where the puck is. The hockey player’s remarks have particular resonance for BlackBerry old-timers, as it is the very same quote the late Steve Jobs highlighted at his 2007 launch of the iPhone as a warning shot that Apple was taking aim at the Canadian company’s dominant share of the smartphone market.
Today Apple and phones powered by Google’s Android operating system virtually control the smartphone market. Android phones account for 84 per cent of smartphone sales and Apple 12 per cent, according to IDC.
JACQUIE MCNISH AND SEAN SILCOFF
TORONTO and OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Sep. 24 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Sep. 25 2014, 6:25 AM EDT