BlackBerry Chief Executive Thorsten Heins set out to dispel notions that… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )
BlackBerry maker Research in Motion is reinventing itself with a promising operating system, two new smartphones and a name change.
The question now is whether it'll be enough to attract new customers and win back those who long ago ditched their BlackBerrys for rival smartphones.
During BlackBerry's glitzy global launch event Wednesday that included an appearance by singer Alicia Keys, Chief Executive Thorsten Heins quickly set out to dispel notions that the company was on its way out. Many consumers and analysts have derided BlackBerry as a has-been smartphone maker struggling to stay afloat.
"We have definitely been on a journey of transformation," Heins told a crowd of reporters and bloggers in New York. "Today is not the finish line. It's the starting line."
Still, Wall Street wasn't impressed. The company's shares, which had been on a sharp upswing and more than doubled over the last three months, plummeted following the news. Shares closed down $1.88, or 12%, at $13.78. Some analysts said investors may have been simply taking their profits.
At the event, the Canadian company now known as BlackBerry showed off its long-overdue BlackBerry 10 operating system and two phones: the touch-screen-only Z10 and a traditional physical keyboard model called the Q10.
BlackBerry 10 features include separate work and personal profiles, time-saving ways to multitask without closing applications, video chat with live screen-sharing and more than 70,000 available apps.
For users wary of a touch-screen-only device, BlackBerry says the touch-screen on the Z10 has more accurate auto-correct and predictive text, multi-language capabilities within the same email and use of flicks and swipes to quickly select or delete words.
Although the operating system and the devices themselves have debuted to generally positive early reviews, some are wondering if it's too little, too late for BlackBerry. The once-dominant smartphone maker has seen its market share plummet to just 6% in the U.S., far behind Apple Inc.'s iOS and Google Inc.'s Android platforms.
A crucial test will be how quickly BlackBerry adds must-have apps to its lineup. Although the company touted that it had more than 70,000 apps for BlackBerry 10, including Skype, Amazon Kindle, Facebook, Twitter and Angry Birds, that's still just a small fraction of the 800,000 apps in Apple's App Store.
Analysts have said it'll be difficult to change the perception that BlackBerrys are no longer cool, and have cautioned that this may be the company's last chance to get it right.
"There are questions on whether the world really needs a third or fourth mobile OS touch-screen platform," said Shaw Wu, an analyst at Sterne Agee, noting how customers and developers have been lukewarm to adopt new platforms including Windows 8 and WebOS despite strong reviews. "Is BB 10 different enough from iOS and Android to help stem the tide of defections and perhaps even win over converts?"
One upside is the BlackBerry 10 platform "offers a differentiated user experience in today's crowded and homogenous smartphone market," said Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum. But he remained skeptical about the company's prospects.
"Despite a well-designed BlackBerry 10 platform that will certainly attract short-term interest from existing users," he said, "the company will struggle to appeal to a wider audience and in the long term will become a niche player in the smartphone market."
Still, BlackBerry has 79 million subscribers around the world and is strong in emerging markets where the devices are seen as status symbols.
Although many users in the U.S. have moved on to other devices, some smartphone users, including Perry Ball, 49, said they would be willing to give the brand another chance based on the devices and features introduced Wednesday.
Ball, an administrative assistant from Houston, switched from a BlackBerry Curve to an iPhone more than a year ago and said he hasn't been enamored with the Apple device. BlackBerry 10's multitasking capabilities and touch-screen improvements impressed him, he said, so once his wireless contract ends later this year, he might go back.
"I'm going to do my research on several phones, but I'm definitely going to check out the BlackBerry," Ball said. "I'd really like to see BlackBerry succeed because more competition in the marketplace is better for everybody."
BlackBerry didn't provide many device specifications or pricing details for its new phones, but said that in the U.S. wireless carriers AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint would carry BlackBerry 10 devices. Heins said he expected the Z10 to be available with "most" carriers in March. U.S carriers began announcing price plans Wednesday; Verizon said it would sell the Z10 for $199 with a two-year contract.
The biggest surprise of the worldwide launch — with events in New York; Toronto; London; Paris; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Dubai — came early, when Heins announced that RIM had changed its name to BlackBerry to better unite the company and smartphone brand. Its new ticker symbol on the Nasdaq stock exchange, effective Monday, will be BBRY.
And in a move to gain popularity among younger adults, BlackBerry also brought Keys onto the stage and announced that the R&B singer-songwriter would serve as the company's new global creative director.