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Thorsten Heins on Blackberry's future

00:00 / 18:59

Thorsten Heins on Blackberry's future 18:59

After a long wait, BlackBerry's new smartphone — the BlackBerry Z10 — was launched in Canadian stores today.

While there weren't the long lineups typical of an Apple launch, both Rogers and Bell reported strong demand for the phone, with 50 per cent of pre-orders coming from non-BlackBerry users, according to independent technology analyst Chris Umiastowski.

"We're hearing that pre-order sales have exceeded iPhone sales for the last three months," Umiastowski told CBC News.

The move comes after several delays left some longtime BlackBerry fans sticking with their older phones or switching to a competitor's phone.

BlackBerry has fallen well behind since dominating the smartphone market five years ago, offering no strong answer to Apple's iPhone or Google's Android platform.

Facts about BlackBerry 10:

  • Touchscreen version out now, keyboard version coming in April.
  • $140 with a three-year contract.
  • 16 GB storage.
  • New operating system has been in development since 2010.

But BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins told CBC Radio's The Current that the company's fall has been exaggerated.

"We're still selling seven million units by the quarter, so there still is a very loyal audience.

"What also happened is that we went global," Heins said, pointing to growth in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. "We're rocking in those markets."

For today at least, the focus for the BlackBerry boss is on Canada, attending a launch event with the CEO of Rogers, BlackBerry's launch partner. "It's important to perform in your home market, because it sends a message."

Cause for concern

The Canadian market may not contain as much home-field advantage as BlackBerry hopes, according to research firm IDC Canada.

The Waterloo, Ont., company had just 4.5 per cent of the Canadian smartphone market at the end of last year. That put it in fourth place — behind Apple with 47.5 per cent, Samsung with 32.7 per cent, and LG with 4.6 per cent.

Some analysts have been concerned as well that the launch of BlackBerry's new phone — its first major launch in years — came too late to reverse the momentum that has seen its global market share drop to a fraction of its competition.

"Basically all they have to do is say, 'Can we make money at two or three or four per cent of the global market?'" says John Plinussen, an associate professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "Yes you can. Can you make tons of money? No you can't."

Early reports from the U.K., where the phone launched last week, suggest the new BlackBerry is selling at a steady pace, however, with some stores selling out, and long lineups at several stores. "It's very encouraging," Heins said.

Fans of the phone's physical keyboard will have to wait awhile longer, though. The BlackBerry Q10, the new keypad version of the device isn't expected to launch until April.

The Z10 is being offered by major Canadian carriers for $140 on a three-year contract, and $600 without a contract. It isn't expected to be released until March in the U.S., where it has just two per cent market share.

Make-or-break product for BlackBerry

While the physical keyboard has long been an essential and beloved tool of so-called CrackBerry addicts, the move to release the touchscreen first was signalled by the company last spring.

The revamped models, which are powered by a whole new operating system, are widely seen as a make-or-break product for the company. After two major delays some in the technology sector had grown skeptical over whether the former Research In Motion would survive long enough in its current form to get the phones to the market.

"That's why we built the BlackBerry 10," Heins says, "to make the company survive".

'It's not just about the phones'—BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins

The BlackBerry 10 devices were originally scheduled for release last year, but chief executive Thorsten Heins decided they still weren't ready for the public, even though they had already been delayed once before.

Heins, who took over the CEO job from Jim Balsillie and co-founder Mike Laziridis, was careful not to blame BlackBerry's fall on the two.

"These guys deserve a lot of respect because they built a $20-billion revenue Canadian industry icon," Heins says, but that the company kept too close to its original "recipe" and fell behind.

He also dug deep into the company's operations to cut costs, which included closing manufacturing facilities and making thousands of job cuts.

'Future of mobile computing'

Heins says the devices aren't all that BlackBerry has up its sleeve.

"It's not just about the phones. We've got a short-range radar system that's BB10 as a device, and a long-range radar system which is BB10 as a platform for mobile computing."

RIM's slide against competitors Apple and Samsung has been considerable. In 2009, the company had 20 per cent of the global smartphone market. By 2012, that share had fallen to 3.4 per cent.

In the U.S. alone, market share fell to just two per cent from 48 per cent in 2008.

BlackBerry shares ended the trading day up $1.04 to $16.02 US on the Nasdaq, a gain of almost seven per cent.

'$30B' spent on patent battles

Heins also spoke on Tuesday at Toronto's Empire Club, making a point to discuss how legal battles over patents, especially in the United States, have been detrimental to the mobile technology industry.

"This past year, our sector spent almost $30 billion in courtrooms — particularly in U.S. courtrooms — defending cases against non-practicing entities — or 'patent trolls' — who produce nothing," he said in prepared remarks.

"Patent trolls hold genuine innovators hostage and patents have become weapons in an international technology arms race. This is crazy. We have to shift our resources from litigation back to innovation, investment and job creation."

BlackBerry holds over 3,400 U.S. patents, making it one of the top patent-holders in the country.