BlackBerry Optimistic, Realistic About U.S. Launch

By: The Washington Post Email
By: The Washington Post Email

(The Washington Post)- BlackBerry will face jaded customers on Friday with the U.S. launch of its latest smartphone, a last-ditch effort to show that after years of product delays and poor performance, the company is ready to compete.

“We will fight for each and every individual,” Thorsten Heins, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview. (The company changed its name from Research in Motion in January to reflect a focus on its primary product.)

It won’t be easy. The Blackberry once dominated the global smartphone market, but it has lost ground to Apple’s iPhone and phones such as Samsung’s that run Google’s Android operating system. It held just 10.3 percent of the global market in 2011 and 4.6 percent in 2012, according to International Data.

BlackBerry is betting its fortunes on two new smartphones including the Z10, which is debuting Friday. Reviewers have called it a capable phone — sleek, smooth and stylish. But it lacks a killer feature that could elevate BlackBerry.

Investors have been hopeful, driving up the company’s stock 150 percent over the past six months.

Heins said he has simple expectations in the launch of the Z10: to keep the company’s current customer base, pick up converts or persuade former BlackBerry devotees to re-join the fold. Still, Heins refused to set sales targets for the phone’s launch. The object is not to overtake smartphone market leaders Samsung and Apple, he said, but to maintain BlackBerry’s share and make modest gains to secure third place.

“The expectation is to gain market share,” said Heins. “We’re not content with where we are today.”

Winning that battle will mean appealing to security-conscious government customers. Once solidly in BlackBerry’s corner, government agencies have increasingly allowed employees to use other smartphones for work.

In this area, Heins said, BlackBerry is eager to please. Its new operating system, BlackBerry 10, allows employers to separate — and erase — work data from phones without affecting employee’s personal photos, e-mails, apps or documents.

The company’s focus on the business sector could be its saving grace, said Rob Enderle, principal technology analyst for the Enderle Group.Government agencies and corporate customers have “been screaming bloody murder that the phones now can’t comply with their standards,” Enderle said. “They’re the only ones focused on business . . . it’s a unique opportunity.”

And despite his tempered expectations for taking on the competition, Heins still isn’t pulling any punches.

He balked at comparisons between BlackBerry’s app marketplace — which has grown to 100,000 apps since its January launch — and the 800,000-strong platforms offered by Apple and Google as a meaningful measure of success.

“It’s not all quantity,” he said. BlackBerry wants apps focused on productivity that will appeal to its hyperconnected users, he said.

He also took direct aim at some standard smartphone designs offered by competitors such as Apple, including a home button that allows users to return to the phone’s main screen.

“The home button is outdated by now,” Heins said. The BlackBerry Z10 doesn’t have one.

There is a learning curve with the new phone, Heins acknowledged, but all touch devices require consumers to adapt.

“It’s the nature of innovation and of user interfaces,” he said. “Once [our customers] get used to it, they love it.”

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