Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

BlackBerry: off the mat, hitting back

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What a difference a year has made for BlackBerry.

Twelve months ago, the company's annual conference was a gloomy, mournful affair, the equivalent of sitting around a much-loved but ailing relative's bedside. This week, the event in Orlando, Fla., has been a glitzy, glamorous party with pop singer Alicia Keys and Formula One race-car driver Lewis Hamilton playing cheerleaders to 5,000 enraptured delegates.

Twelve months ago, BlackBerry's eroding share of the global smartphone market, along with its crashing stock prices, led to fevered speculation about its future -- and even if it had a future. Critics doubted the Waterloo-based company would start selling its much-ballyhooed new software platform and more than a few skeptics wrote BlackBerry's obituary.

This week proved reports of this company's demise were not only premature, they were totally wrong.

As the conference shows, the past 12 months have been a boomerang year for BlackBerry. It has successfully brought BlackBerry 10 and two new smartphones to market. While nowhere near its heights of a few years ago, the company's stock value has risen from the lows of 2012.

And this week, BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins announced two bold new initiatives. BlackBerry will begin offering BlackBerry Messenger, its popular mobile messaging application, to other smartphone platforms, including the iPhone and devices powered by Google's Android operating system.

And it's bringing out a new, cheaper smartphone -- the BlackBerry Q5 -- in emerging markets such as Brazil and Indonesia.

To be sure, the new strategies carry risks. Although the BlackBerry Q10 sells for about $700 in North America, the new Q5 will cost a fraction of that. Selling cheaper smartphones could hurt sales of BlackBerry's more expensive products.

Meanwhile, will the company make its own smartphones less relevant if people using other devices can avail themselves -- for free -- of BlackBerry Messenger, which now generates more than 10 billion messages a day from 60 million users?

But BlackBerry's new game plan has the potential to do great things. Selling a cheaper BlackBerry allows the company to go toe to toe against less expensive Android devices in emerging markets. Long-term, that could build onto BlackBerry's loyal customer base. Likewise, giving the BlackBerry Messenger application away for free allows more devices to communicate with BlackBerry smartphones. And that could boost BlackBerry sales.

We cannot gaze into a crystal ball and report what the coming weeks, let alone another year, will bring for BlackBerry, Heins, or its workforce -- thousands of whom are employed here in the Waterloo Region. But this much is true: BlackBerry has picked itself up off the mat and fought back with a dynamic, even aggressive campaign to grow. In a cutthroat business with rivals coming at it from every part of the planet, BlackBerry is following the trajectory it must -- onward, upward.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2013 A11

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