BlackBerry has launched a touchscreen smartphone without its trademark Qwerty keyboard, the first of four new devices, as the company attempts to regain its relevance amid fierce competition.
The 5in BlackBerry Leap, available in grey and in black, will go on sale in April priced at $275, competing with the latest versions of the Samsung Galaxy and Apple iPhone, both of which cost more than $600.
BlackBerry’s decision to launch four handsets this year underscores the extent to which the company is still relying on its device business, which accounts for almost three-quarters of revenues, despite attempts to generate a greater proportion of sales from software and services.
At its peak in 2008, BlackBerry accounted for one in every five smartphones sold and had a market value of $80bn, compared with less than $5bn today. Since then it has haemorrhaged sales in the face of strong competition from Apple and Samsung, and low-cost Asian manufacturers such as Xiaomi, leaving it with a market share of less than 1 per cent.
Some analysts were sceptical that the new smartphone would help BlackBerry win back customers. Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight, said the BlackBerry Leap would “find it tough to compete with Apple iOS and Android devices” but was “essential for a more-rounded portfolio”.
He added: “Given BlackBerry’s continued dependence on device revenues it can’t afford to stop delivering new and updated devices.”
John Chen, BlackBerry’s chief executive, said on Tuesday he had been inspired by Asian manufacturers that are making smartphones that retail for as little as $100-$150. Mr Chen added, however, that his engineers could not produce a phone with which he was satisfied at that price.
Mr Chen said the company was still committed to its Qwerty keyboard but that did not mean it should not “build touchscreen phones for a certain segment of the market”. BlackBerry will launch a new Qwerty handset this year, as well as a luxury smartphone, another touchscreen device and a “dual curve” model with a sliding keyboard.
“By and large we are very focused on the Qwerty experience, and the majority of people in our labs are working on that,” Mr Chen said as he unveiled the device at Mobile World Congress, the wireless industry’s annual trade fair.
Blackberry’s share of the global smartphone market is 0.5 per cent, according to IDC, a forecaster. Strategy Analytics, a research group, said it had captured a statistically insignificant share of worldwide smartphone profits in the last three months of 2014.
Mr Chen has been trying to engineer a turnround at BlackBerry since he joined the pioneering Canadian smartphone maker 16 months ago. He has stopped the company burning through cash, made a profit in the most recent quarter and says the group is “a little ahead of our two-year turnround strategy and game plan”.
However, the company had “revenue that is depleting” and needed to focus on stabilising this and delivering growth. On Tuesday he touted a range of new software and services, including one that bills customers separately for work and personal use on the same device.
BlackBerry would “make sure our software addresses everybody’s phone”, including handsets running Apple, Android or Microsoft software — a tacit admission it needs to look beyond sales of its own device for growth.
Mr Chen has said he aims to double revenue from software and services to $500m within a year. “It will take a while for the two [parts of the] business to become the ‘twin towers’ and we’ll continue to focus on both,” he added.
The company said the device would be aimed at “career builders and companies who value security and privacy”.