BlackBerry chief executive John Chen introduces the Passport smartphone at today's launch event

BlackBerry launches unconventional new smartphone

BlackBerry has launched the Passport, an unconventional new smartphone central to the most critical phase of its long turnaround.

Designed with professional users in mind, the passport-sized device, which boasts a 4.5in square screen and a unique touch-sensitive tactile keyboard, was launched in Toronto today with simultaneous events also being held in London and Dubai.

The launch comes at the end of a recently concluded three-year restructuring process that has largely halted the company’s fall from the smartphone industry’s top table, but chief executive John Chen still faces a struggle to prove the company's new devices and services are capable of returning the Canadian firm to profitability.

"BlackBerry is still fighting for survival. They still need to turn around and develop a viable ongoing business model," said Morningstar analyst Brian Colello. "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."

The new phone has a screen that will show 60 characters across – meaning spreadsheets and other business-oriented information will be easily readable – and a new capacitive keyboard, which embeds gesture controls in the plastic keys, that enable users to use swipes to delete words, scroll through documents or even control a cursor.

The company is also expected to launch the long-awaited BlackBerry Classic, which bears similarities to its once popular Bold smartphone, within a couple of months.

"BlackBerry just needs one hit phone for now," Colello said. "It doesn't quite matter whether it is the Passport, the Classic or anything else, but they do need one device to jump-start the hardware business again. The big question really is whether any of these devices will kick-start it."

The company will also soon be launching its new mobile device management system – BlackBerry Enterprise Service 12 (BES12), which will allow IT managers at large firms and government agencies to not only manage and secure BlackBerry devices, but also all Android, iOS and Windows-based devices on one platform.

Chen, a well-regarded turnaround expert in the tech sector, intends to remain a competitor in the smartphone arena, but is focused on reshaping the company to build on its core strengths in areas like mobile data security and mobile device management.

BlackBerry is betting that the enhanced security features on its BES 12 platform, coupled with a range of value-added services, will help revive revenue growth and stem its slide.

"BES12 is the most important product launch, as it is needed to stem the service revenue decline," Scotiabank analyst Daniel Chan said in a note to clients yesterday.

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