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BlackBerry 10: New device, new name, new hope?

Goodbye Research in Motion. Hello BlackBerry. If there were any question that the beleaguered smartphone maker was seeking to leave its past behind, they were answered this morning, when CEO Thorsten Heins announced to a packed room in New York City that he was dumping the company’s name.

The clean swipe was surely not lost on Mike Lazaridis, sitting a few feet from the stage. Lazaridis came up with the name 29 years ago, when he launched the company as a maker of paging products. Definitely not in the room was Jim Balsillie, Lazaridis’s deal-making partner for most of the ride, and the man most credited for driving BlackBerry into a billion-dollar business … and then right off of the road.

This morning’s launch of the BlackBerry 10 was all about getting out of the ditch and back in the right direction. Fortunately the path was fairly clear: The other way. Not a device with a terrible browser, few apps and scant redeeming qualities for the consumer crowd. Ignoring all of that stuff may have been fine a decade ago, but succeeded only in crushing the company’s market share and stock price over the last five years.

So goodbye to all of that.

The message today was that Heins and Co. had finally seen something in the success of Android and the iPhone: A device that specializes only in email and secure service (more or less) was a relic; unwanted and unneeded.

The Z10 is a complete refresh: it’s fast, it’s sleek, it’s seamless, according to early reviews. It organizes emails plus Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn notifications all in one inbox. The screen is bigger, the apps are dramatically improved, and its touchscreen keyboard is predictive, meaning it anticipates words as you type them, and improves on the process as you go.

It’s very clearly the smartest BlackBerry developed to date. That isn’t in doubt. The question is whether that will be enough. Providing the company’s 79 million users to stay with them is one thing – and frankly that’s no sure bet, as the majority of users are in emerging markets -- the Z10’s $600 price point may well be a deal-breaker.

But the much bigger challenge, of course, will be convincing Android users and Apple devotees to forsake their phones, their files and their eco-system of apps, to move back to a debased brand. Because, let’s face it, one decent device isn’t going to immediately undo years of sub-par performance. Not when the product only serves to close the gap, rather than leap significantly ahead of the competition.

For Heins, the hope is that the Z10 is the first of many steps out of the ditch. And if he got a helping hand from reviewers, he surely figures he can withstand some indifference from the market, which is what he’s received so far today. Two key constituencies have spoken, next up is everyone else.

The phones will hit the shelves in Canada on Feb. 5 and the U.S. in March. That’s when the real test begins.

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