BlackBerry's new Z10, also known as its Hail Mary.
Some people are calling today the most important day in BlackBerry's company history. Or, in The New York Times's view of things, it's at least the biggest day "since 1996, when its founders showed investors a small block of wood and promised that a wireless e-mail device shaped like that would change business forever."
What's the big deal? Well, after months of delays and lots of "they'd better get this right" blog posts, the company released its new BlackBerry 10 operating a system, a very iPhone-like device called the Z10, and a more run-of-the-mill clicky keyboard BlackBerry called the Q10. Nobody seems to really care about the Q10, but David Pogue calls the Z10 "BlackBerry’s Hail Mary pass, its bet-the-farm phone." Like virtually every other smartphone on the market now, it has a touchscreen, multitasking and a decent camera.
Meanwhile, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion clearly wanted to peg this as a turnaround moment, and even went so far as to change its name to — no big surprise, here — BlackBerry. It even named a new global creative director: self-confessed "iPhone junky" Alicia Keys. (Yah, I'm still scratching my head on that one too, especially after Lady Gaga fizzled in the same role for Polaroid.)
The Q10 is basically every BlackBerry ever created, but about three years too late to hold on to the corporate users who loved them.
But what a big day! New phone! New software! New name (sort of)! Newfound success? Not so fast.
It's obviously going to take some time to figure out if BlackBerry's Hail Mary will work, but initial reactions are pretty mixed. Wall Street was not impressed. Immediately following the company's unveiling of its new goodies, BlackBerry's stock tanked and was down over 7 percent within an hour or so. Then again, it doesn't really matter what Wall Street thinks if the phone actually sells. We won't have a solid answer on that for quite a while though.
The Z10 hits stores in the United Kingdom on January 31, but it won't arrive in the United States until March. It'll be priced about the same as every other smartphone -- $199 or so with a new contract and $599 without. At that point in time and at that price point, the Z10 will have to compete not only with the iPhone 5 but also the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S IV, which is apparently getting "iPhone-like hype." And it's been a long time since anybody lined up to buy a BlackBerry device. Come to think of it, I'm not sure that's ever happened.
BlackBerry's not just hoping they'll have a blockbuster with this new line up. They need to have a blockbuster. Last year, after it pushed back the release date of the new operating system and laid off 5,000 employees, BlackBerry said it "expects the next several quarters to continue to be very challenging for its business based on the increasing competitive environment, lower handset volumes, potential financial and other impacts from the delay of BlackBerry 10." The quarters before that weren't exactly a cakewalk, either.
CNET is positive about the Z10, but also sounds a bit like it's rooting for the underdog.
Whereas BlackBerry used to control some 85 percent of the smartphone market, the company now controls about 2 percent, and has lost a huge portion of the crucial enterprise market it once dominated as corporate IT departments started supporting iOS and Android en masse. In the same time period, BlackBerry stock took a nosedive from a high of about $144 to its current price of about $14. In other words, the company lost 90 percent of its value in the past five years.
This is all to say, BlackBerry is looking at an almost impossible challenge. We've seen technology companies throw Hail Mary passes in the past, and we've also seen the ball fall dozens of yards short of the end zone. Remember the Palm Pre? Much like the BlackBerry Z10 now, the Pre hit the market in 2009 basking in the warm glow of good reviews. At that point in time, Android was hardly the dominant force it is today, and Apple's iPhone was closing in on BlackBerry, which was still the corporate device of choice. But you know what? The Palm Pre was a terrible disaster, and within a year, the entire company was sold to HP. The Pre is now remembered as Palm's swan song.
It's hard to predict the future. But even if the BlackBerry Z10 is a tremendous hit, it seems like something world-changing will need to happen to put the company back up on its perch as a major player in the smartphone business. And no, hiring Alicia Keys to pretend to like BlackBerry products is not that something. Neither is changing the company name from Research in Motion to BlackBerry. The two brands have always been basically synonymous. If anything, we're now left with the impression that the research is no longer in motion, and BlackBerry is smoking its last cigarette before the firing squad arrives.