BlackBerry launches new Passport smartphone through AT&T, hopes to win back enterprise customers

BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) officially unveiled its first new, major smartphone since 2013, the Passport, and said that the square device aimed at business users will be available through AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T). However, BlackBerry did not announce any other U.S. carrier partners for the device, which could limit U.S. sales.

According to The Verge, AT&T is not saying how much the Passport will cost or when it will be available, but BlackBerry expects the phone to cost about $249 with a contract. The device is also available off-contract for $599 now from BlackBerry's online store in the U.S., France, Germany, the UK and Canada. BlackBerry said the phone will be available in 30 countries by the end of the year.

BlackBerry hopes the innovative design and features of the Passport will help it win back enterprise users.

Source: BlackBerry

"When you come out of restructuring, when you come out of financial problems, once you stabilize the company, customers and the market will only respond if you're innovating again," BlackBerry CEO John Chen told Businessweek before the device was formally unveiled at simultaneous events in Toronto, London and Dubai. BlackBerry event trotted out hockey legend Wayne Gretzky at its Toronto event to tout the Passport's features--and presumably highlight BlackBerry's Canadian roots.

In addition to a physical, touch-sensitive keyboard, the Passport also has a 4.5-inch HD screen, which the company said is ideal for viewing documents and spreadsheets. Users can type on the Passport's keyboard to enter text, or they can swipe across it to navigate through the device.

The Passport and the new Porsche Design P'9983 smartphone from BlackBerry are the first devices to launch on BlackBerry's latest software platform, BlackBerry 10.3. A new element of the platform is BlackBerry Assistant, the company's first digital assistant. Like Apple's Siri and Google's Now, BlackBerry users can use Assistant to manage work and personal email, contacts, calendar and other native BB10 applications with voice commands. BlackBerry said Assistant intelligently determines how to respond to users based on how they interact with it. For example, if users type, it responds silently; if users speak, it speaks back; and if users activate it over Bluetooth, it speaks back with additional context because it assumes users might not have access to the screen.

The Passport's screen has 453 pixels per inch and Corning's Gorilla Glass 3, and the phone sports a quad-core 2.2 GHz processor, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of memory and a 13 megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization. The phone also has a 3450 mAh battery, which BlackBerry said is the largest "among the top selling smartphones and phablets" and, when tested against a very active user, provides up to 30 hours of mixed use.

BlackBerry also unveiled new software called "Blend," which it said brings messaging and content that is on users' BlackBerry smartphones to their computers and tablets. Users can get notifications, email, BlackBerry Messenger messages and text messages across Windows, iOS, Mac and Android devices.

Analysts said BlackBerry is taking a risk with the Passport but that the company needed to do something to set itself apart in a crowded market. "The fact that it has a polarizing design makes people want to touch it," Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research, told CNET. "When you pick it up, you'll either love it or hate it."

"BlackBerry is still fighting for survival. They still need to turn around and develop a viable ongoing business model," Morningstar analyst Brian Colello told Reuters. "Their products are certainly pointing toward that and the new strategy makes sense, but there is still a lot of execution risk at this point in a very competitive market."

CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber said the Passport "goes back to the core principles of the company and is designed to appeal directly to its enterprise base. This is a much needed product that will help support the company's transition into enterprise services."

Blaber added that the Passport "is in stark contrast" to the original BlackBerry 10 phone launches in 2013, and is "a far more focused enterprise device rather than trying to compete head on with the Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) ecosystems."

"Looking after the 'BlackBerry faithful' has to be the Canadian's company's first priority--appealing to a broader audience that has already jumped ship is a tougher challenge but the Passport signals BlackBerry is still in the hardware business," Blaber added.

For more:
- see these two separate BlackBerry releases
- see this The Verge article
- see these two separate CNET articles
- see this Reuters article
- see this Businessweek article
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this NYT article

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