BUSINESS

BlackBerry Reminisces About Its 'CrackBerry' Days Ahead Of New Phone Release

12/17/2014 04:00 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST
While BlackBerry's latest smartphone might look familiar, chief executive John Chen said Wednesday the new Classic model is hardly a "rehash" of old technology.

The head of the Waterloo, Ont.-based company stood before an audience in New York on Wednesday and told them he was responding to requests from some of BlackBerry's most loyal customers, such as the leaders of major U.S. banks.

"A lot of them pulled out their BlackBerry ... and told me 'Don't mess around with this thing. Don't mess around with the keyboard, don't mess around with the track pad,'" Chen said.

"I took that from them, I listened intensely and tried to figure out how to get back in the minds of our customers."

Reaching back to the heyday of the "CrackBerry" was a conscious decision by Chen to drag BlackBerry users, who have clung to their old and worn BlackBerry Bold and Curve models, into the next generation of the device.

It's a shift "back to the future," he told the audience of the media, analysts and some customers.

The Classic is designed to look and work like an updated version of the Bold 9900, which became the company's best-selling device when it was released in 2011. Some of the most familiar features — including the quick key commands — have been restored to the phone after recent BlackBerry models did away with them.

What's different is the Classic runs on BlackBerry's most recent operating system and other important functions, such as the speed of web browsing, have vastly improved.

BlackBerry is selling the device for $499, although Canadian wireless carriers are offering a discounted price with a two-year contract.

Before Chen took the stage, Blackberry executives turned the spotlight to a handful of celebrities who have professed their love for previous incarnations of the smartphone.

A video collection featured past interview footage with reality show star Kim Kardashian boasting about her BlackBerry addiction and a reference to rapper Drake, who says he writes his songs on the smartphone.

But the most unusual moment was pulled from an archival NBC News report, which featured Hollywood actor Charlton Heston's National Rifle Association speech where the late actor famously proclaimed "From my cold, dead hands" while raising a rifle over his head.

An oversized BlackBerry was superimposed over the gun by the news network.

Perhaps the linking of guns with BlackBerrys resonates more with an American audience, but pushing the envelope has become one of Chen's defining characteristics.

Just more than a year ago, he swooped into BlackBerry and began to dramatically reshape the company's priorities by shrinking its employee numbers, lowering costs and making phones that other technology companies would never consider, like the oversized Passport.

On Friday, BlackBerry will release its third-quarter financial results, offering the latest insight into whether progress is being made at turning around the money-losing operations of the former technology giant.

Shares of BlackBerry were ahead 2.7 per cent, or 30 cents, to $11.34 Wednesday near midday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

One of Chen's top priorities has been rescuing BlackBerry's reputation with business customers and the Classic model was born from the CEO's determination to resurrect a phone that he said some customers demanded.

Three years ago, betting BlackBerry's prospects on a keyboard model was practically heresy as company executives were adamant that BlackBerry's future was in touchscreens. For awhile, they tried to chase the users who were switching to Apple's iPhone, Samsung's Galaxy and other devices.

After the launch of BlackBerry's Z10 and Q10 devices spiraled into a marketing disaster, the company's leadership returned to the drawing board.

One of them was to restore features that made its older phones a massive success with customers.

Returning to the Classic model are some familiar features of older BlackBerrys including a "belt" of physical keys placed below the screen that included menu buttons and a small track pad.

What's different from the older phones is a larger screen and improved battery life.

Convincing smartphone users that the Classic is anything but a has-been concept will be the biggest challenge, said Max Wolff, chief economist at Manhattan Venture Partners.

"There's no real razzle-dazzle there to say the least," Wolff said in an interview.

"The problem is they're fighting a universal market perception that their devices are kind of washed out."

BlackBerry has raised a few eyebrows for naming its new device the Classic, which might invoke memories of Coca-Cola's Classic rebranding as it went into damage-control mode after the failed launch of "New Coke" in 1985.

"Calling this Classic definitely is not a mark on our previous products, but it is meant more to strike up imagery with existing BlackBerry users — it's a bit of throwback for them," said Michael Clewley, director of handheld software product management in a recent interview.

"With John (Chen) coming in and taking the reins of BlackBerry ... I think he personally really liked the name 'Classic' because it was something that brings an image in people's mind when they say it."

While BlackBerry hasn't disclosed pre-order numbers for the latest phone, the company has been aggressive in chasing major contracts with corporations and government.

On Tuesday, Export Development Canada announced US$850 million in financial assistance being given to European telecom giant Vodafone, with the majority of the money being allocated to BlackBerry. Under the five-year agreement, Vodafone will spend $750 million on BlackBerry's handsets, software and support services.

— With files from Michael Oliveira.

Follow @dj_friend on Twitter.