Can BlackBerry move past 'solid ground' to recapture past glory?

The phone maker unleashes a flurry of announcements, all meant to convey rising momentum. But can it take that next big step?

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins at the keynote of BlackBerry Live. Brian Bennett/CNET

ORLANDO, Fla.--If there's one message BlackBerry wanted to convey at its annual confab, it's this: "We're back."

"It hasn't been that easy, and there's still a lot of work to do, but man, have we reached solid ground with this company," CEO Thorsten Heins said during his keynote address at BlackBerry Live on Tuesday.

BlackBerry was busy Tuesday, offering a smorgasbord of news. There was the device announcement in the form of the budget-friendly BlackBerry Q5 . There was the updated BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10.1 for the business-minded. There was the milestone of 120,000 apps available in BlackBerry World. Most surprising was the company's decision to open up BlackBerry Messenger to multiple platforms, starting with iOS and Android.

All of those announcements are meant to convey a sense of building momentum at BlackBerry. Indeed, over the last several months, the company has launched a brand new platform, worked to repair its wounded reputation, and fleshed out its product portfolio to three products.

"I remember being right here one year ago on this stage," he said. "This year feels very, very different."

At the last show -- Heins' first as CEO -- critics predicted that he wouldn't be back on stage this year. The company's sales were eroding and it began losing money. Its market share almost entirely evaporated, particularly in the U.S., and it didn't have any new products to show off, aside from a developer test unit. Shareholders were already shell-shocked, having seen most of the value of their investment vanish.

This year, Heins was clearly more comfortable with the proceedings. While fielding questions from the press, he didn't just sit in his director's chair; he leaned back in it, underscoring a sentiment of confidence -- even cockiness -- that comes from bringing a company back from the brink.

"We are confident in the future of BB10," he said. "We think we have something that's different and better."

Not everyone is as comfortable with BlackBerry's prospects. Shares of the company fell 4 percent after its announcements. There's still little indication of just how well its BlackBerry 10 devices have fared, and the company was conspicuously silent on the matter. There remain questions about whether its injured brands can actually be rehabilitated.

Still, many regard the day's announcements as a positive step for a company that at one point could do no right.

"It's a step forward, or rather a series of steps forward, and that's a good thing," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.

Q5 for the budget-minded
The BlackBerry Q5 isn't going to wow anyone, but it's not supposed to. As I previously explained , the venerable phone maker needed a budget version of its BlackBerry 10 smartphone, which allows the company to better target emerging markets such as Southeast Asia and Latin America.

These are companies where the BlackBerry brand remains dominant, and there is a fondness for full-keyboard smartphones.

"It keeps BlackBerry relevant in those markets with the company's latest and greatest," Llamas said.

What's telling is BlackBerry has yet to unveil the pricing on the phone, which will likely depend on individual countries and carrier partners. Llamas said the sweet spot in those regions is to hit a price point of around $200 without a contract (smartphones in the U.S. can cost $600 or more without a contract).

While the BlackBerry Q5 feels like a lower-end phone than the BlackBerry Z10 or Q10, it's unclear just how much cheaper the product will end up being.

BlackBerry said the phone would launch in certain markets starting this summer, although specifically conspicuous from that list was the U.S., which could use a lower-end phone in the prepaid segment.

BBM breaks out (finally)
BlackBerry whipped the crowd up into a frenzy when it said it plans to open BlackBerry Messenger up to multiple platforms, taking on large mobile messaging services such as WhatsApp.

While BlackBerry boasts 60 million users on BBM, WhatsApp said it exceeds 200 million active users.

By opening up BBM to different platforms, BlackBerry is hoping to appeal to users who have defected but who still have a fondness for the service. The wider audience will give BBM more value to users and extend the community, according to Greg Klassen, a chief architect at BlackBerry.

He noted that some non-BlackBerry users are missing out on the service, and believes many will jump back on board.

Critics believe BlackBerry should have opened up BBM a lot earlier, when people were still using the service. But the company didn't want to give up such a valuable service, which helped tie people to BlackBerry. Some believe it's still losing a valuable exclusive feature.

"A bit of damned if you do, damned if you don't. We worry that current BlackBerry users may have one less major reason to stick with BlackBerry if they can access BBM on Android and Apple as well," said Will Power, an analyst at R.W. Baird.

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Others remain skeptical that the brand issues remain insurmountable for BlackBerry.

"Sadly, however, you can still make all the right calls, and lack of brand strength will not get you very far," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Executives, meanwhile, believe BlackBerry 10 is strong enough now to stand alone without the help of a key feature like BBM.

"It's a statement of confidence," Heins said. "We are confident time is right for BBM to be independent."

By opening up BBM to multiple platforms, the company can also pursue BBM Channel, which is the company's take on Twitter, and allows high-profile figures and brands to create their own accounts and garner followers.

The announcement was part of a bigger push to get convention goers to stop thinking of BlackBerry as simply a device company, but one with an ecosystem of products and services that go beyond messaging and e-mail.

"We will show the world that BB understands mobile better than anybody else," Heins said. "It is in our DNA."

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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