BlackBerry launches comeback campaign

Associated Press photo by MARK LENNIHAN -- Vivek Bhardwaj, left, head of software for BlackBerry, and Thorsten Heins, CEO of Research in Motion,  introduce the video share capability of the Blackberry 10 Wednesday in New York.
Associated Press photo by MARK LENNIHAN -- Vivek Bhardwaj, left, head of software for BlackBerry, and Thorsten Heins, CEO of Research in Motion, introduce the video share capability of the Blackberry 10 Wednesday in New York.

A new generation of more versatile BlackBerry smartphones is about to hit the market after excruciating delays allowed mobile devices made by Apple, Samsung and others to build commanding leads in a market that is redefining society.

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. formally unveiled its long-awaited line-up of revamped smartphones and software Wednesday at simultaneous events held in New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Dubai, Johannesburg, Jakarta and Delhi.

In a move underscoring the stakes riding on its make-or-break product line-up, the Canadian company used the occasion to announce it is changing its name to BlackBerry — a pioneering brand that has lost its cachet since Apple’s 2007 release of the iPhone reset expectations for what a smartphone should do.

One of the first devices in the new crop of BlackBerrys will be called the Q10, which will feature a physical keyboard like previous versions of the phone.

The Z10 will have only a touch screen keyboard, like Apple Inc.’s trend-setting iPhone and other handsets running on Google Inc.’s Android software, including Samsung’s popular Galaxy.

The two will run on a redesigned operating system called BlackBerry 10, which the company began working on after buying QNX Software Systems in 2010.

The new software and BlackBerrys were supposed to be released a year ago, only to be delayed while Apple and Android device makers won more zealous converts to their products. In the meantime, Microsoft Corp. also rolled out a new Windows operating system for smartphones, confronting RIM with another technology powerhouse to battle.

The delays in developing the new BlackBerrys helped wipe out $70 billion in shareholder wealth and 5,000 jobs.

“It is the most challenging year of my career,” said RIM Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins, whose anniversary leading the company occurred last week. “It is also the most exhilarating and exciting one.”

The wait for U.S. smartphone users interested in buying the new BlackBerry line still isn’t over. The Z10 won’t be released in the U.S. until March and the Q10 might not arrive in the country until April, Heins said. That’s to give wireless carriers more time to test the product. All the major U.S. carriers plan to sell the new BlackBerrys. The estimated U.S. prices for the phones weren’t announced, though.

The Z10, which BlackBerry will call the “Zed-10” outside the U.S., will go on sale Thursday in the United Kingdom. The same model will be released in Canada on Feb. 5 and will cost about $150 there with a three-year wireless contract.

Despite their limited availability until March, the new BlackBerrys will be hailed in a commercial Sunday during CBS’s telecast of the Super Bowl. RIM hasn’t disclosed how much that will cost, but some 30-second spots during the game have been sold for as much as $4 million.

BGC Financial analyst Colin Gills said the new phones’ tardy arrival to the U.S. threatens to cause even more BlackBerry users to defect to the iPhone or an Android device. By the time the Z10 goes on sale in the U.S., Gillis suspects many geeks will be waiting to see what Google plans to unveil in mid-May at an annual conference that usually includes new gadgets.

RIM’s stock gained $1.88, or 12 percent, to close at $13.78 Thursday and dipped in after-hours trading to $13.57. The shares have still more than doubled from their nine-year low of $6.22 reached in September, but are still nearly 90 percent below their peak of $147 reached in 2008 when the iPhone was still a novelty trying to break into the mainstream.

Previews of the BlackBerry 10 software have gotten favorable reviews on blogs. Financial analysts are starting to see some room for a comeback. RIM redesigned the system to embrace the multimedia, apps and touch screen experience prevalent today.

Besides promising a better typing experience, the new BlackBerrys are supposed to run faster, pull up multiple applications simultaneously and enable users to separate their professional and personal lives with a feature called “Balance.”

“Gone are the days of going back and forth and in and out between applications,” said Andrew MacLeod, RIM’s managing director for Canada. “It’s cumbersome, it’s inefficient, and it’s slow.”

Ovum analyst Adam Leach thinks the new system will appeal to existing BlackBerry users, but that won’t be enough to undercut the popularity of the iPhone and Android devices.

He predicted that BlackBerry “will struggle to appeal to a wider audience, and in the long-term will become a niche player in the smartphone market.”

Avi Greengart, of Current Analysis, said RIM will need a persuasive marketing campaign to lure back former BlackBerry fans who have switched to iPhones or Android devices.

“They need to convince consumers that their approach to mobile computing matches how a subset of people feel about themselves,” Greengart said.

Jefferies analyst Peter Misek called the redesigned BlackBerry a “great device” that could lead to a revival that many market observers didn’t think was possible at RIM’s low point last year.

“Six months ago we talked to developers and carriers, and everybody was just basically saying, ‘We’re just waiting for this to go bust,’” Misek said. “It was bad.”

The BlackBerry has been the dominant smartphone for on-the-go business people and crossed over to consumers. But when the iPhone came out, it proved phones can do much more than email and phone calls. Suddenly, the BlackBerry looked ancient.

In the U.S., according to research firm IDC, shipments of BlackBerry phones plummeted from 46 percent of the market in 2008 to 2 percent in 2012.

AP technology writer Michael Liedtke in San Francisco
contributed to this story.