BlackBerry goes for qwerty keyboard, again, with Passport smartphone

Square-shaped display, quad-core processor, big battery, and new voice assistant might attract older BlackBerry users who still want a physical keyboard

blackberry passport frontlean

BlackBerry is hoping the Passport's qwerty keyboard will persuade its customers to upgrade.

 
Credit: BlackBerry

BlackBerry announced its Passport smartphone today and bet large that there are users who will want a qwerty physical keyboard with a wider, square, 4.5-in. display.

The new smartphone went on sale in the U.S. today at ShopBlackBerry.com for $599 unlocked. Several U.S. carriers, including AT&T, are expected to sell the device later this year for about $250 on a two-year contract, BlackBerry officials said. Amazon.com will also offer the smartphone although pricing wasn't disclosed.

Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who showed up at a Toronto launch event that was live streamed, praised the long battery life of the Passport and the BlackBerry Hub capability, seen in earlier BlackBerry smartphones, which allows users to see emails, texts and calls in one view.

"BlackBerry Hub is so unique and so simple … to help stay on top of things," Gretzy said. "From day one, I've been a BlackBerry user and I really believe in the product."

Gretzy said it's best to pay attention to what BlackBerry will do in the future, noting the advice he was told as a beginning hockey player: "Go to where the puck's going to be, not where it was," he said.

BlackBerry said the focus of the new Passport, which is designed so that it can fit in a pocket like a travel passport, is on worker productivity and not for the general consumer. That's a change from its Z10 touchscreen device introduced in January 2013 and the Z30 touchscreen smartphone launched in September 2013.

"BlackBerry Passport was created to drive productivity and to break through the sea of rectangular-screen, all-touch devices," said CEO John Chen in a statement.

Indeed, BlackBerry has millions of legacy qwerty keyboard users worldwide and hopes to satisfy their need for an updated device with a faster processor and a large, vivid display. Younger professionals also have shown an interest in using a physical keyboard in a smartphone, said Trudy Koen, director of product marketing at BlackBerry. She said one unnamed U.S. carrier conducted a market survey that showed younger customers were interested in buying a qwerty smartphone.

"We're definitely not giving up on young smartphone buyers," Koen said in an interview.

BlackBerry won't say how many customers it has globally, but pegs its cross-platform BBM messenging service subscriber total at 160 million registered users, with more than 85 million monthly active users. Analysts estimate that the installed base of BlackBerry users, many of them on older qwerty smartphones, hovers in the tens of millions worldwide, perhaps as high as 50 million to 60 million.

Meanwhile, BlackBerry continues to struggle in selling new smartphones, and its total market share recently slipped to less than 1%. The greater focus, instead, at BlackBerry is on research and software products for enterprises, especially for managing mobile devices that run a variety of operating systems across a work force. There were 35,000 commercial and test BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10 servers deployed globally, BlackBerry said in June, with updated numbers expected following Friday's earnings report.

Passport's qwerty keyboard could be the nudge that older BlackBerry users need to get them to buy a new device, analysts said, but they doubted young professionals would respond much at all.

"The advantage of a physical keyboard is that you can blind type, which means you can keep your eyes where they are supposed to be and with quick glances can still get that email or text sent out," said analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group. "The Passport will be a great tool for those that are still wedded to a keyboard and want a more cutting edge phone."

Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research, added, "Qwerty keyboards are highly underrated. While they seem old school, they're very useful. Millennials might like the device because it could be perceived as retro cool, but millennials per se are not the target."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, tried to further level expectations. "Passport is aimed squarely at enterprise users and not the consumer market," Gold said. "Its unique form factor is optimized for document creation and editing, so BlackBerry is targeting really heavy Office-type users and its core messaging users. Passport won't sell well in consumer, but could give BlackBerry a boost in its enterprise installed base."

In keeping with the theme of working across platforms, the Passport will run the  BlackBerry 10.3 operating system, which includes new BlackBerry Blend sharing software. With Blend, users can share content and messages from a BlackBerry 10.3 smartphone with desktops running Mac OS X 10.7 and higher and Windows 7 and higher, iPads running iOS 7 and higher and Android tablets running Android 4.4 or higher.

A voice feature called BlackBerry Assistant also has been added to BlackBerry 10.3, allowing users to make queries and leave appointment reminders by voice command or text. Assistant will compete with voice assistants on other platforms, including Apple's Siri, Google Now and Windows Phone's Cortana.

BlackBerry also said Passport will be able to access BlackBerry World apps and Amazon Appstore apps, which are designed for Amazon's variant of Android. While BlackBerry World apps are primarily focused on business professionals, Amazon apps will include popular games.

Features of the Passport hardware include a 4.5-in. square screen with a 1:1 aspect ratio and 1440 x 1440 pixels, or 453 pixels per inch. It also has Corning's stronger Gorilla Glass 3.

Because of the Passport's square display size, BlackBerry said users will see a truer browser page or more columns in an Excel spreadsheet. BlackBerry also claims that users' typing on the device's qwerty keyboard was nearly four times more accurate — meaning fewer typos — than when using a BlackBerry 10 device with a virtual keyboard.

The qwerty keyboard also innovates with a responsive touch surface in addition to its touchscreen display. Many touch functions can be performed from the keyboard across all the keys, like a trackpad, including scrolling up and down through Web pages and moving the cursor left or right for document edits.

Passport's 3,450 mAh battery is the largest of any smartphone on the market, offering 30 hours of mixed use, BlackBerry said. However, it is not removable.

The phone also has two cameras with image stabilization -- a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 2-megapixel front camera.

Passport also comes with BlackBerry's first quad-core processor, a 2.2 GHz Snapdragon 801. There is 3GB of RAM, with 32GB of internal storage.

While the Passport is almost exactly the size of a travel passport, it is much heavier at 6.9 ounces. In overall size, it is 5 in. x 3.5 in. x 0.36 in., making it shorter than the new iPhone 6 Plus with its 5.5-in. display, but wider and thicker.

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