NEW YORK – A new generation of more versatile BlackBerry smartphones is finally 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.
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, and the Z10 will have only touch-screen keyboard, like Apple's trend-setting iPhone and other handsets running on Google's Android software, including Samsung's popular Galaxy. They 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 giving RIM another technology powerhouse to battle. The delays helped wipe out $70 billion in shareholder wealth and 5,000 jobs.
"It is the most challenging year of my career," said RIM CEO 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 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, to give wireless carriers more time to test the product. The estimated U.S. prices for the phones weren't announced either.
The Z10, which BlackBerry will call the "Zed-10" outside the U.S., will go on sale Thursday in United Kingdom Thursday. The same model will be released in Canada on Feb. 5 and will cost about $150 there with a three-year contract.
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.
Wednesday's event didn't go over well on Wall Street. RIM's stock fell $1.18, or 7.5 percent, to $14.48 in afternoon trading.
Repeated delays have turned the once-iconic BlackBerry into an afterthought in the shadow of the iPhone and Android devices. That has led some analysts to question whether the company that helped create the smartphone market will survive, especially as its losses have mounted in the past year.
Yet there was renewed optimism heading into Wednesday's event. Previews of the BlackBerry 10 software have gotten favorable reviews on blogs. Financial analysts are starting to see some room for a comeback. RIM's stock has more than doubled from its nine-year low in September, though it's still nearly 90 percent below its 2008 peak of $147.
RIM redesigned the system to embrace the multimedia, apps and touch-screen experience prevalent today. The company is promising speedier devices, a superb typing experience and the ability to keep work and personal identities separate on the same phone.
Most analysts consider BlackBerry 10's success to be crucial for the company's long-term viability. Doubts remain about the ability of BlackBerry 10 to rescue RIM.
"We'll see if they can reclaim their glory. My sense is that it will be a phone that everyone says good things about but not as many people buy," Gillis said. He thinks the company will need to sell at least 5 million BlackBerrys each quarter to remain viable.
Jefferies analyst Peter Misek called it a "great device" and said RIM does have some momentum just months after the Canadian company was written off for dead.
"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.
Regardless of BlackBerry 10's advances, though, the new system will face a key shortcoming: It won't have as many apps written by outside companies and individuals as the iPhone and Android. RIM has said it plans to launch BlackBerry 10 with more than 70,000 apps, including those developed for RIM's PlayBook tablet, first released in 2011. Even so, that's just a tenth of what the iPhone and Android offer. Popular services such as Instagram and Netflix won't have apps on BlackBerry 10.