BlackBerry launches Passport phone, Blend app

BlackBerry released its new Passport phone today, a 4.5-inch keyboard smartphone aimed at corporate users.

CEO John Chen's strategy under scrutiny at today's product release

BlackBerry CEO John Chen shows off the new Passport, left, and Classic phone models at the company's annual general meeting this June. The Passport, by the Waterloo, Ont.-based company, was officially released Wednesday. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)


  • Introduces BlackBerry Blend, cross-platform and cross-device data-sharing app
  • Passport phone has reported 30-hour battery life, 13 megapixel camera
  • Passport available today only at Telus, other carriers in coming weeks
  • Introduces BlackBerry Assistant, a voice-activated command program like Apple's Siri
  • BlackBerry Classic phone to come by year's end

BlackBerry released its new Passport phone today, a keyboard smartphone with a 4.5-inch​ screen aimed at corporate users.

John Chen, charged with turning around Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry since last November, has said the company’s future rests on rebuilding its relations with the enterprise market, long a core of its business.

The Passport is on sale starting today, available only at Telus until Oct 1. Users will pay $200 for the phone on a two-year contract, which jumps to $250 starting Oct. 1.

Customers with Bell and Rogers can pre-order the phone, available for $249 with a two-year plan at Rogers and $299 with a two-year plan at Bell, and have it shipped on Oct 1.

Users who want to buy the phone without a contract will pay $699. 

The new smartphone's hefty design — the size of a passport, or perhaps a suit pocket — has a screen that will show 60 characters across. That means spreadsheets, medical charts and other enterprise-friendly information will be readable.

The Passport specifications:

  • Screen is 1,440 x 1,440 pixels square, with 453 dots per inch, or DPI, resolution.
  • Gorilla glass screen. 
  • QWERTY keyboard layout, a comfortable holdover from early BlackBerry designs.
  • Extra-loud speakerphone, 350 per cent louder than that of the Samsung Galaxy S5.
  • Device switch app that allows users to import data from other phones
  • Reported 30-hour battery life
  • Includes 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage space
  • 13 megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization
  • Rear camera has f2.0 lens and 1080p HD video recording that can shoot 60 frames per second
  • 2 megapixel front camera with 720p HD video recording

"I have to tell you, I just fell in love with the phone when I came in," said Chen, who said it was mostly finished before he started with the company. 

The phone also features a physical keyboard that doubles as a virtual keyboard — users can swipe the physical keyboard to add words onscreen while typing, or to move around a cursor on the screen.

CBC reporter Matthew Kang, who was at the Toronto launch, described it as a "hybrid of keyboard, mouse and touch screen."

Representatives from Bloomberg business news were also on hand to announce a Passport-specific app, available at the end of October, that will allows users to see an increased number of stock quotes at once.

Chen also confirmed that the BlackBerry Classic phone will be released by the end of the year, but wouldn't provide any more detail to reporters. 

BlackBerry Blend

The company launched BlackBerry Blend, an app that syncs data across computers and mobile devices including smartphones and tablets, without needing a virtual private network. Not only does it sync across devices, but across operating systems. 

A user can receive BBM notifications on a desktop computer running Windows, or share a file from an Android tablet, for example. It also allows users to sync with third-party online storage systems like DropBox, and works on Apple computers and tablets. 

Blend isn't cloud computing system, however, as the files are natively stored on the Passport smartphone, which has 32 G of included storage. 

Blend is available today in various app stores, including Apple's App Store, Google Play, Amazon Appstore and BlackBerry World. 

Daniel Bader, a tech expert with MobileSyrup, calls the Passport a niche product very much geared to existing BlackBerry users within enterprises.

“This is not going to take the world by storm in terms of numbers. The Passport is the best way to showcase BlackBerry software and services — so blend is a big part of that,” he told CBC News.

He admired Passport’s battery life and its new keyboard.

“It's made with stainless steel and curved glass, a very stark piece of technology — not elegant in the traditional way but has its own sense of beauty,” he said.

 Bader said Blend, the new cross-platform app, is the most intriguing new feature.

“It brings the BlackBerry out of the phone itself and into the computing ecosystem,” Bader said. “We can use it on an Android or IOS tablet or a Windows or Mac PC. You still have secure access to all your e-mails or text and the files that you want to share between those two devices without having to manual remove the files and risk losing them.”

Citi analyst Ehud Gelblum said BlackBerry is going after too small a target market.

 “We expect this phone to appeal only to the high end corporate executive market, which we estimate is quite small and being encroached on by others,” he said in a note to investors.”

He also was unimpressed by the ability to adapt Android apps to the BlackBerry – a necessity because fewer apps are being developed for BlackBerry.

“We believe the square shape of the screen could make the vast store of Android apps now available via the Amazon app store a disappointing experience as most were designed for a longer screen,” he said.

Chen says restructuring over

Chen told the crowd at the Toronto launch on Wednesday that the company's restructuring process is over and the company is focusing on growth. Chen is known for turning around Sybase in the 1990s

BlackBerry's chief has made the manufacturing and supply chain more efficient and raised cash via the sale of the company's extensive real estate holdings.

But none of that counts unless he can create a portfolio of hardware and services that appeals to professional customers, and then start turning a profit.

The company reports on its earnings this Friday. BlackBerry stock was up on the release, trading at $11.81 at mid-afternoon.

Chen told the Wall Street Journal the Passport will go on sale in the United States at a no-contract price of $599 US, comparable with the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S5. That's $100 less than in Canada. 

AT&T will be the exclusive carrier in the U.S., according to Chen on Wednesday.

One key question is whether the company can leverage BlackBerry Blend independent of having a BlackBerry device, said Bob O’Donnell, president of Techanalysis Research.

“This is not an overnight turnaround by any stretch of the imagination. They’ve got a lot of hurdles to overcome,” he said in an interview with CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

O’Donnell says BlackBerry has to play up their security features.

The famed BlackBerry security remains an appealing selling point — it's hard to hack.

But equally important will be a raft of services to be released this fall to support the new phones. 

A BlackBerry Enterprise Server 12 update is planned for November and is expected to introduce cloud storage before year-end. Also on the menu are apps designed for business use.

BlackBerry Passport's performance will be a test of Chen's strategy as well as an indication of the potential for the company as a whole.

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