BlackBerry’s Chen Touts Passport’s Square Deal

BlackBerry is about to present its Passport to the business world -- a smartphone that costs less than rivals, while offering more screen real estate and a physical keyboard. The only hitch, in the words of tech analyst Roger Entner, is that "oh my god, this is ugly." Well, "pretty is as pretty does," BlackBerry might fire back. It's clearly going for functionality, not sex appeal.

BlackBerry on Wednesday will hold official launch events for its much-anticipated and potentially game-changing Passport smartphone in Toronto, London and Dubai. The Passport’s unique square-shaped form factor is designed with business and professional users in mind.

In the run-up to these events, BlackBerry CEO John Chen announced that the Passport will be available in the coming weeks, priced at US$599 for an unlocked version.

The Passport’s price point is lower than many rival high-end flagship handsets, Chen suggested. BlackBerry began taking preregistrations for the Passport earlier this month, focusing on its core user base in the enterprise sector.

“When it comes to our capabilities, we build with enterprise-grade in mind,” said BlackBerry spokesperson Nadia Stolfi.

“We have an unparalleled global infrastructure and the deepest understanding of how to provide secure, productive mobile collaboration and communications,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

“BlackBerry is the only [enterprise mobility management] vendor that can manage the full range of customers’ mobility requirements — from multiplatform BYOD (bring your own device) to the most secure corporate-only use cases,” Stolfi claimed.

Hip to Be Square

In its preview of the Passport, BlackBerry touted it as a marriage of form and functionality. It has a 4.5-inch square screen with Full HD-class resolution (1440 x 1440) that offers the same viewing space of a 5-inch phone while providing 60 characters across the screen — as opposed to the 48 characters most other smartphones accommodate.

With the Passport, users won’t have to switch between portrait and landscape when reading documents or browsing the Web. It also has a full mechanical QWERTY keyboard.

“BlackBerry has an aggressive strategy to continue to lead and act as a trusted advisor in the enterprise mobility space,” said Stolfi.

“The BlackBerry Passport is a part of this plan, as we designed it for mobile professionals who desire a mobile device that allows them to improve the way they do business,” she observed.

“These users love a keyboard but desire more screen real estate for visualizing photos, video, images, spreadsheets and documents. These highly productive individuals want to be on the cutting edge of technology, and the BlackBerry Passport gives users the latest technology to enable them to accomplish more,” she maintained.

Keyboard to Success

The Passport reportedly includes a 2.2-GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, an Adreno 330 CP, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of built-in storage, a 2-megapixel front camera and a 13-megapixel rear camera with a BSI sensor.

The key standout feature of the square phone could be its keyboard.

“The rest of the handset industry has given up on keyboards on phones, but under Chen, the company is focusing again on mechanical keyboards,” said Ian Fogg, senior principal analyst and head of the IHS mobile sector at IHS iSuppli.

“BlackBerry under Thorsten Heins launched a new OS with a touchscreen,” he pointed out.

“It is clear that Chen is taking the company back to devices with keyboards — not exclusively, but in the main,” Fogg told the E-Commerce Times.

This move comes as rival handset makers, including those making Android devices, largely have moved away from the physical keyboard form factor and focused instead on larger displays. The Passport could be an attempt to offer the best of both worlds, but not everyone has been impressed with its look.

“It’s a valiant effort — but oh my god, this is ugly,” Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics, told the E-Commerce Times. “Let’s hope the inside is better designed than the outside. The few BlackBerry enthusiasts left certainly will be disappointed.”

Taking on Windows

While BlackBerry is following industry trends to provide a bigger screen, it clearly is moving in another direction from Android or even Apple’s iOS. The Passport may not be a reaction to those devices, but it could be a way to fend off another rival — namely, Microsoft.

“Today it is tempting to write about Apple as BlackBerry’s rival, but Apple isn’t competing in the same market as BlackBerry, particularly outside the United States,” noted Fogg. “The emerging threat to the company remains Microsoft, which is focusing on enterprise and productivity — and that is the heart of BlackBerry in the mobile market.

Microsoft has struggled in the mobile phone space, and under its new leadership has begun to introduce enterprise productivity devices.

“BlackBerry sees that Microsoft is now the emerging threat,” said Fogg, “and it needs a device that appeals to those users. It appears the Passport is their answer.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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