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BlackBerry Passport signals a deliberately different company

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BlackBerry Chief Executive John Chen introduces the Passport smartphone during an official launch event in Toronto, September 24, 2014. BlackBerry launched an unconventional new smartphone dubbed the Passport on Wednesday, as it embarked on potentially the most critical phase of its long turnaround push. REUTERS/Aaron Harris (CANADA - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TELECOMS)

In the end, it isn’t an iPhone. And that’s entirely the point.

BlackBerry’s new Passport, announced Wednesday morning at simultaneous launch events in Toronto, London, and Dubai, is easily the most out-of-bounds design the once-conservative mobile solutions company has ever dared bring to market.

With its 1:1 aspect ratio, 4.5-inch square screen and three-row QWERTY keyboard that doubles as a touch-sensitive trackpad, even CEO John Chen admits it doesn’t fit into any existing product categories.

“When you first see the phone, people said it is the world’s smallest phablet or the world’s largest phone,” he said at the company’s annual general meeting in June.

A harbinger of change

Yet as BlackBerry continues its pivot back to the enterprise market that once fuelled its initial rocket ride to the top, the wide-body Passport has become an unlikely symbol of the company’s return from its catastrophic collapse, and a window into the inner workings of its transformation.

It isn’t the first new piece of hardware released under Chen’s watch. That honour goes to the Z3, the low-cost, full-touchscreen model designed primarily for emerging markets that bowed earlier this year.

But the Passport launch is easily the company’s most significant moment in recent history, and far more relevant to the success of its enterprise-centric roadmap.

In concert with the Classic model, which reintroduces the trackpad and so-called “toolbelt” of buttons, the Passport illustrates tangibly how BlackBerry intends to woo its once-and-future-core market of business and IT decision-makers — not by copying anyone else — which speaks volumes about BlackBerry’s culture under its CEO 10 months after he took the job.

Devices only the start

Of course, the BlackBerry story now extends far beyond handsets alone. No single device will magically sell tens of millions of copies and unilaterally pull the company back to its former levels of glory. If Apple’s iPhone is a hero product - it drove 52.8 per cent of the company’s revenue in its most recent quarter - the Passport is the anti-hero, a halo device that casts a positive glow over the rest of the company’s offerings without necessarily driving the bottom line to the same extent.

It’s a reality that isn’t necessarily negative. For BlackBerry, which reports its Q2 earnings this Friday, the future rests on more than just devices. BES12, the company’s next major iteration of its enterprise server product, goes live later this autumn, and gives IT the ability to remotely manage iOS, Android and Windows Phone-based mobile devices in addition to traditional BlackBerrys. A growing suite of mobile device management and security products rounds out a portfolio designed not to shine on a retail shelf, but to impress the corporate and IT types who keep the mobile back-end up and running.

The next chapter

However the Passport ends up selling, Joe Compeau, a lecturer in Management of Information Systems at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., says the bigger challenges extend well beyond hardware.

“It is the next 10 months that are important,” he told Yahoo Canada Finance. “While the enterprise customer can return them to profitability, it is not the path to the future growth. Centralized IT groups is the past. Will [Chen] be able to make the pivot to the Internet of Things? And where will Blackberry fit?”

Compeau adds the same issues that have been dogging BlackBerry for years remain unresolved, and Chen needs to keep them on his radar.

“He still needs to deal with the issues of lack of apps in the Blackberry eco-system and their inability to connect with consumers and new economy workers,” he said. “Blackberry is still the technology of an older generation.”

Moving beyond

While the company works to dispel that residual perception and get enterprise customers to buy into its vision of cross-platform mobile management and productivity tools that securely prepare businesses for the fast-approaching Internet of Things landscape, the Passport serves as a critical anchor of its strategy, a tangible foundation for its services offerings and an affirmation that it has no intention of backing away from the market it first created.

That we’re even discussing any BlackBerry product within this context is a strong signal that BlackBerry has moved well beyond its lowest point and is now firmly into the delivery phase of its recovery. With the Passport going live, the promises end and the execution begins in earnest.