BlackBerry's newly launched Passport phone is an ugly square qwerty-keyboard device that will appeal to some heavy business users and repel others, but that's really not what matters. If BlackBerry is to have a future at all, it will be in software and services.
That has been my feeling ever since the company went private and John Chen took over as CEO. BlackBerry was the one-time enterprise smartphone king, but it has struggled to keep up as iPhones and even Androids became suitable business devices. (See Time to Flip BlackBerry's Handset Kill Switch and BlackBerry Inks Deal to Go Private.)
That said, when it comes to security, the company's BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) is still the best; BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) still has a loyal following; and QNX, the operating system the company acquired in 2010, is a great platform for machine-to-machine devices. I don't know whether BlackBerry will find a following for the Passport device as it hopes -- early reviews seem mixed -- or its forthcoming Classic phone, but either way I think BlackBerry is starting to understand that it needs to focus on being a services company, not a smartphone maker. (See Eurobites: BlackBerry Buys German Security Firm.)
Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson, who was at today's Passport launch event, agrees that BlackBerry's main focus is now messaging with its Messenger platform, M2M with QNX, the OS it acquired, and enterprise services, with BES at its core. Dawson gets the impression today that Chen believes this as well to a certain extent, but remains bullish on the future of BlackBerry's devices business. (See BlackBerry Wants a Fruitful Future in M2M.)
"BlackBerry does seem to be more realistic about where it should focus its efforts with devices than it has been in the past, and that's a really good thing," Dawson writes in an email to Light Reading after the event. "But John Chen hinted just now during the press Q&A that the Classic device they'll launch between now and the end of the year will be a bigger seller with a broader appeal than the Passport. I worry that this suggests they haven't given up on the broader smartphone space, which, frankly, they should at this point."
Right now, of course, all of the businesses Dawson mentions are still closely tied to BlackBerry devices, but that doesn't have to be the case. BBM is available on Android now, and BES can be a device-agnostic device management platform. It's in BlackBerry's best interest to keep positioning both as such, gradually distancing them from devices even more. (See BlackBerry's Chen: We're Not Dumping Devices.)
BlackBerry has already held on longer than many thought it would, and it's now counting on the Passport and Classic to drive its comeback story. I have my doubts that will be the case, but I think if the company focuses on its strength in services and software, it has a chance. That will be its passport to success, not a squatty little niche smartphone.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading