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BlackBerry goes for qwerty keyboard, again, in Passport smartphone

Matt Hamblen | Sept. 25, 2014
Square-shaped display, quad-core processor, big battery, and new voice assistant might attract older BlackBerry users who still want a physical keyboard.

blackberry passport frontlean
BlackBerry is hoping the Passport's qwerty keyboard will persuade its customers to upgrade.

BlackBerry announced its Passport smartphone today and bet large that there are users who will want a qwerty physical keyboard with a wider, square, 4.5-in. display.

The new smartphone went on sale in the U.S. today at for $599 unlocked. Several U.S. carriers, including AT&T, are expected to sell the device later this year for about $250 on a two-year contract, BlackBerry officials said. will also offer the smartphone although pricing wasn't disclosed.

Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who showed up at a Toronto launch event that was live streamed, praised the long battery life of the Passport and the BlackBerry Hub capability, seen in earlier BlackBerry smartphones, which allows users to see emails, texts and calls in one view.

"BlackBerry Hub is so unique and so simple ... to help stay on top of things," Gretzy said. "From day one, I've been a BlackBerry user and I really believe in the product."

Gretzy said it's best to pay attention to what BlackBerry will do in the future, noting the advice he was told as a beginning hockey player: "Go to where the puck's going to be, not where it was," he said.

BlackBerry said the focus of the new Passport, which is designed so that it can fit in a pocket like a travel passport, is on worker productivity and not for the general consumer. That's a change from its Z10 touchscreen device introduced in January 2013 and the Z30 touchscreen smartphone launched in September 2013.

"BlackBerry Passport was created to drive productivity and to break through the sea of rectangular-screen, all-touch devices," said CEO John Chen in a statement.

Indeed, BlackBerry has millions of legacy qwerty keyboard users worldwide and hopes to satisfy their need for an updated device with a faster processor and a large, vivid display. Younger professionals also have shown an interest in using a physical keyboard in a smartphone, said Trudy Koen, director of product marketing at BlackBerry. She said one unnamed U.S. carrier conducted a market survey that showed younger customers were interested in buying a qwerty smartphone.

"We're definitely not giving up on young smartphone buyers," Koen said in an interview.

BlackBerry won't say how many customers it has globally, but pegs its cross-platform BBM messenging service subscriber total at 160 million registered users, with more than 85 million monthly active users. Analysts estimate that the installed base of BlackBerry users, many of them on older qwerty smartphones, hovers in the tens of millions worldwide, perhaps as high as 50 million to 60 million.


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