BlackBerry Classic hopes to strike bold, nostalgic chord

The much-teased smartphone harkens back to the long-past glory days of BlackBerry. Its CEO also teased a reconciliation with T-Mobile.

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Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
3 min read

BlackBerry is going old school.

The BlackBerry Classic was unveiled at an event in New York today. Josh Miller/CNET

After months of teases, the company officially unveiled the BlackBerry Classic , which draws its inspiration from the Bold line of smartphones -- particularly its famed keyboard.

"Everything you know about the BlackBerry (Bold) has been upgraded," said CEO John Chen, who showed off the device on stage at an event in New York on Wednesday.

The BlackBerry Classic comes at a time when the company is in the midst of a radical transformation. BlackBerry has spent the last year refocusing its business around business software and services, banking more on its BES 12, which is designed to manage all mobile devices -- whether it's a BlackBerry or iPhone. Still, the Classic represents the most important launch because it is the company's best shot at consumer awareness with its familiar design.

The Classic is being sold unlocked on its website for $449, and will ship December 30. AT&T said it will carry the product at launch, but didn't specify a date or price. Verizon, Canadian carriers Bell Canada, Rogers and Telus will also sell the phone.

CNET's review: BlackBerry Classic -- great keyboard, cramped screen

The device brings back the larger Bold-inspired keyboard; although, the rows are straighter than the slightly curved keyboard on the Bold 9900. It is paired with the latest version of its BlackBerry 10 operating system.

The BlackBerry Classic is intended to cater to diehard BlackBerry users who still prefer a physical keyboard over a touchscreen. But Chen said he believes there's a potentially broader market for the smartphone.

"I invite a lot of people who haven't used BlackBerry before to have a try at it," he said. "I think you'll like it and be surprised by it."

Take a closer look at the BlackBerry Classic (pictures)

See all photos

But it's clear that business customers will be a focus for BlackBerry. The company brought up a number of companies to talk about how they use the Classic.

Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart called BlackBerry's hope for attracting new customers "Wishful thinking."

But the Classic does play a role in keeping BlackBerry in the mobile devices game, which is critical to helping sell its business software and services. "They need devices to underpin the core value propositions (that come from its service)," said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Abelian Research.

The Classic harkens back to BlackBerry's glory days, when the Bold flagship smartphone was a hot item and the company was a major player in the mobile business. Over the past few years, BlackBerry's market share has shrank significantly and doesn't merit mention among the top lists of mobile device vendors.

BlackBerry has had a relatively quiet year on the device side. In April, BlackBerry launched the Z3, a low-end smartphone for emerging markets. It also launched a high-end Porsche model in the summer. In September, BlackBerry unveiled the Passport smartphone, but the wider screen device hasn't had wide distribution; carrier partner AT&T still hasn't put it in its stores.

BlackBerry made headlines when CEO John Chen and T-Mobile CEO John Legere got into a spat over T-Mobile offering incentives to customers looking to dump their BlackBerrys. BlackBerry ended its relationship with T-Mobile in April; although, Legere has since said he was open to finding a way for the two to work together again.

When CNET asked Chen about a reconciliation with the carrier, he hinted he was open to it as well.

"We should connect," he said.

Updated at 10:19 a.m. PT: To include analyst comments and background.