Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big splash for new BlackBerry

Old moniker dropped; fate up to buyers

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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 Wednesday -- 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 next Tuesday, chief executive Thorsten Heins told an eager crowd of fans in New York. The U.S. release date is a little later though, in March.

The BlackBerry Z10, a touch-screen 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 touch screen 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Heins quickly did away with the confusing, and perhaps outdated, Research In Motion moniker that had represented the Waterloo, Ont. 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 Feb. 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 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.

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.

-- 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.

RIM had become a punching bag for its competitors: Apple's iPhone and numerous Android devices had stolen away a significant portion of the BlackBerry company's market share in North America and Europe with flashier touch-screen devices.

Heins made it clear at the launch BlackBerry was ready to take back those customers who had strayed, in particular the business-minded users who consider their smartphone as much an organizer as a way to make phone calls and send texts.

The BlackBerry maker's shares closed down 11.8 per cent, 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 U.S. 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.

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 touch-screen phone, to take home and play with. Years earlier, Balsillie did the same with the then-unknown BlackBerry device at high-profile technology conferences.

Heins also acknowledged while the new BlackBerry models will start with a touch-screen version, the company is still well aware many of its customers prefer the more traditional keypad model.

In one of the more unusual announcements from the event, the company said 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.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2013 B4

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