BlackBerry signs AT&T deal to sell rounded Passport in U.S.

BlackBerry has inked a deal with America's largest cellphone company to sell the Passport smartphone to its customers, but only after the Waterloo company agreed to round off the device's design a little.

Deal announced at Consumer Electronics Show 2015 in Las Vegas

BlackBerry CEO John Chen shows off a version of the original Passport, which has sharp corners and the shape of a Canadian passport. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

BlackBerry has inked a deal with America's largest cellphone company to sell the Passport smartphone to its customers, but only after the Waterloo, Ont.-company agreed to round off the device's design a little.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, BlackBerry announced that AT&T will become the first U.S. carrier to offer the Passport smartphone to its American customers.

As part of the deal, BlackBerry is going to make a custom version of the Passport — which is shaped and sized like a Canadian passport — but with rounded corners.

"AT&T wanted something unique for their customers," a public relations manager for BlackBerry told CBC News in response to an emailed query about the deal. 

AT&T customers can get the phone for $199 on a two-year contract, or $650 outright, at a time the company describes as "in the near future" in a press release Wednesday.

In addition to being a vote of confidence in BlackBerry's products, the deal harkens back to days when carriers and phone makers were both eager to sign exclusivity deals that made certain carriers the only place where customers could get certain phones. The industry has moved away from that model in recent years.

The Passport in its original shape is available through all the major carriers in Canada.

Bob O'Donnell, founder and chief analyst with TECHnalysis Research, likes Chen's multipronged approach, combining the AT&T deal with its announcement of an Internet of Things strategy.

"What’s great about this for BlackBerry is the exposure. If you look at the smartphone market now, BlackBerry is even better positioned to stand out and be different," he said in an interview with CBC's The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Most other phones look the same, but BlackBerry's products, both Passport and Classic, have a distinctive look, O'Donnell said.

"Throw on top of that some of the security issues and all the stories we read about what happened at Sony — when things started going crazy, they broke out the BlackBerrys," he added.

When Sony realized it had been hacked and its network compromised, staff were reported to have dug out old BlackBerrys so they could communicate on a secure network.

O'Donnell said the Internet of Things strategy also plays into BlackBerry's security advantage.

BlackBerry can "leverage their secure infrastructure and the security they’re known for to get people to share data on smart connected things, mostly cars," he said.


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