SHAFAQNA – Can a huge square-shaped touchscreen and touch-sensitive physical keyboard win back the heart of a once-diehard fan? Personal Technology columnist Joanna Stern reviews BlackBerry’s latest. Photo/Video: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal.
TORONTO— BlackBerry Ltd. BB.T +2.56% unveiled its first major new phone in nearly two years, a larger square-screen device the company is counting on to revive its fortunes against rivals that now dominate the smartphone market.
The Passport’s 4.5-inch square display sets it apart from the more common rectangular screen. It also sports a new iteration of BlackBerry’s signature physical keyboard—one that can be swiped to scroll through content on the screen above.
The stakes are high for the Canadian company, whose last global device launch fell spectacularly flat. In January 2013, it introduced its BlackBerry 10 line of phones with the aim of expanding beyond its core corporate and government customer base. A botched rollout and the company’s already dwindling market share undercut that effort amid the increasing popularity of Apple Inc. AAPL -1.28% ‘s iPhone and Android-powered devices.
This time, BlackBerry is looking not to challenge the dominance of mass-appeal phones but to win back core business customers with devices and security features targeted to their needs.
The launch, marked by events in Toronto, London and Dubai, indicates “we are definitely serious about the handset business” Chief Executive John Chen said ahead of Wednesday’s announcement. The device shows “we are not afraid” to innovate, he said.
Mr. Chen, who took over as CEO in November, has put a business-customer focus and mobile-security offerings at the center of his turnaround strategy for the company.
The BlackBerry Passport sports a physical keyboard that can be swiped to scroll through content on the screen above. The Passport’s large square face is aimed at professionals who need to securely read and manage complex documents like blueprints, X-rays and spreadsheets on their smartphones. The screen displays 60 characters across each line, close to the 66 characters that studies show is the optimal number in a line in a book, and 50% more than the typical smartphone, BlackBerry says.
Passport is priced aggressively. In the U.S. the Passport will cost $599 without a contract, below the starting price for Apple’s iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus phones, which start at $649 and $749, respectively. The device is also cheaper than Samsung Electronics Co. 005930.SE -0.95% ‘s flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone, which went on sale in the U.S. earlier this year for about $650 depending on the carrier.
BlackBerry began selling the device Wednesday through its website to customers in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France and Germany. It will also sell the phone through Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -0.89% and make it available in more than 30 countries before the end of the year through various carriers.
Ahead of the launch, BlackBerry declined to say which carriers will offer the phone in the U.S. The company expects the phone to cost about $249 with a two-year contract, but it will vary by carrier.
The Passport, however, faces tough competition. Samsung already dominates the larger-display market, and Apple sold more than 10 million of its new iPhones just last weekend. Apple has also unveiled a mobile payment system that will allow users to buy merchandise with the wave of an iPhone, staking out a presence in a sector where efforts by other major technology companies, including BlackBerry, have yet to bear fruit.
It also remains unclear whether there remains significant demand for physical keyboards, Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobility research at Gartner Inc., IT -0.24% said ahead of the launch. On smaller phones, physical keyboards were useful because they reduced the number of typing errors, but those are easier to avoid on larger touch-sensitive screens, he said.
BlackBerry disagrees. Its research showed its core customers “missed” the keyboard and “want it back,” Chief Operating Officer Marty Beard said in an interview.
BlackBerry had less than 1% of the global smartphone market in the calendar second quarter, according to International Data Corp.
BlackBerry needs to sell 10 million phones a year to make money from its handset business, Mr. Chen said in an interview. In its fiscal first quarter ended May 31, the company shipped 2.6 million phones. Passport is one of several devices BlackBerry is introducing this year and next to help it reach its goal.
“If [the Passport] is successful, it will accelerate our turnaround efforts,” but if not, “I will still be able to continue to engineer this turnaround,” Mr. Chen said. He is also counting on the coming release of the Classic, a device aimed at loyalists who favor a physical keyboard, trackpad and BlackBerry menu key, and the release of upgraded device management software, to help boost revenue.
The company’s previous global launch suffered in part because there were fewer applications for the BlackBerry 10 devices than for competing phones. But due to a deal with Amazon.com, the Passport comes preloaded with the e-commerce giant’s Appstore, as well as with a collection of other apps. Many are targeted at specific professional groups, including one doctors can use for interactive viewing of X-rays.
“This not a war that I have a million apps,” Mr. Beard said. “This is the case where I have the 20 specific apps” that Passport’s users want to do their jobs, he said.
BlackBerry also Wednesday introduced new application, BlackBerry Blend, meant to help professionals work more efficiently by connecting a BlackBerry smartphone with the person’s computer or tablet.