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Is Passport BlackBerry’s ticket to profitability?

Is Passport BlackBerry’s ticket to profitability?

It’s the weirdest looking BlackBerry you’ve ever seen, with a perfectly square, 4.5-inch screen and a three-row physical keyboard grafted on the bottom. In an age of oddly-oversized mobile devices that look nothing short of bizarre when held to the ear, this wide-bodied handheld that CEO John Chen kept calling a phablet during last week’s demo at the company’s annual general meeting may very well be the most bizarre of all. The AMC Pacer of Wayne’s World lore had nothing on this thing.

And here’s the rub: It works. Only not for the usual reasons.

Hardware as lens

It’s too early to tell if the device, once codenamed Windermere and now officially called the Passport, will manage to cement the company’s return from near-oblivion. In many ways, it’s unfair to put so much pressure on one design.

But as BlackBerry reshapes itself into an enterprise-focused software and services company, hardware continues to be the one tangible thing that, rightly or wrongly, signals to observers whether or not the company still has a pulse. Even as hardware accounts for an ever shrinking percentage of BlackBerry’s fortunes – it made up 39 per cent of the company’s revenue in the most recent quarter, down from 71 per cent in the year-ago period – it remains an important psychological barometer of the company’s health.

Despite the relatively high margins and business agility afforded by BlackBerry’s emerging software and services-based business model, they’re relative intangibles in the minds of the typical observer or consumer. For a company whose iconic designs shaped the brand for so long before its dramatic decline, its increasingly emergent remote device management suites, messaging products, and back-end servers can’t be touched, dissected and assessed in the same manner.

Sign of agility

We couldn’t touch or dissect the Passport at last week’s meeting – nor were we allowed to handle the more conventionally styled Classic model – but for a demo unit scheduled for official release in September, it was as fully baked as a prototype can be, with no obvious glitches in the software and a high level of polish to the design. Old BlackBerry could never have brought anything like it to market in twice the time, yet New BlackBerry is already using its strategic partnerships with original device manufacturers (ODMs) like Foxconn to aggressively move new designs through an abbreviated pipeline.

The odd-duck-looking Passport returns BlackBerry to the large-screen landscape it famously – and not-so-successfully – tried to win over with the PlayBook. The ill-fated tablet died a slow death largely because it was feature-incomplete when it hit the market in 2011, was priced at or above its key competitors, and had relatively few quality apps. Not even drastic price cuts swayed buyers, and the device became a symbol of BlackBerry’s lost ability to understand and deliver what the market wanted.

A new (old) roadmap

The Passport is the clearest signal yet that BlackBerry has moved beyond trying to emulate everyone else's game plan. Yes, it’s bizarre. But it’s bizarre by design. There's nothing else like it in today’s market, which means BlackBerry isn’t trying to introduce yet another slab of 5-plus-inch glass – and more critically suggests an initial turn back to its roots as a engineering innovator and a company that's willing to take calculated risks in aligning its offerings with its target audience.

The Passport answers questions that today’s businesses wrestle with every day, namely how to keep mobile workers productive without having to purchase, provision and manage separate smartphones and tablets. That large screen may look weird, but as a tablet alternative for ripping through large documents, it could be every IT manager’s dream. As the clearest signal yet that BlackBerry has learned the lessons of its tumultuous past, it could be an important harbinger for investors.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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