March 22, 2013 -- For BlackBerry (formerly RIM) today has been a long time coming. A year and a half after previewing BlackBerry 10, its completely overhauled software for phones, it is finally launching its first phone based on the platform in the U.S. Starting today, the BlackBerry Z10 will be on sale at AT&T stores for $199 with a two-year contract. It will be available at Verizon and T-Mobile next week.
But the launch comes at a hard time for the Canada-based company, which has lost signficant marketshare in the last few years. The two major smartphone players, Google and Apple – who unseated BlackBerry in the first place – are pushing their wares even harder at the moment. Just last week Samsung announced its latest Galaxy S4 Android phone to much fanfare and Apple has now started to push its iPhone 5 even more to compete with it.
But BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins isn't fazed. He's ready for the fight, he told ABC News in an interview, and believes the new BlackBerry provides something entirely different and better.
"They are innovating, they are always improving the hardware, for example," Heins said. "But from a pure user experience perspective, we did something that was new. We did something different and that is more attractive to users because it just makes their lives easy."
A Distinct Position
Heins knows the competition is fierce and simply knocking the competitors out is nearly impossible. Instead he has focused on placing BlackBerry in its own position – a position he hopes will win the company the bronze in the smartphone race, behind Android and the iPhone's gold and silver.
"It's a fierce competition mainly driven in the U.S. market," Heins said. "In a mature market, to be everyone's darling doesn't work. Apple has its position, Samsung has its position and BlackBerry has its position, and I am rebuilding BlackBerry's position."
BlackBerry's position still is very much like its old position, in that the device is still aimed at the connected professional, or what Heins calls " the hyperconnected multitasker."
Yet the new phones leave behind BlackBerry's reputation of making outdated and sluggish hardware. The Z10, as we wrote in our review, has all the specifications of a high-end smartphone: a dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, LTE and a 4.2-inch HD touchscreen. The all-touchscreen device will be joined by the more traditional-looking BlackBerry Q10, which has a hardware keyboard, in a few months.
But the BlackBerry 10 software is what sets the devices apart, says Heins. This week he even went so far to call the iPhone's software interface old in an interview with Australian Financial Review.
"When touch devices got introduced five years ago, it was a revolutionary user interface, with apps and the application grid," Heins told ABC News. "But what we did was take this to the next level and reinnovated the application grid."
BlackBerry 10 features unique multitasking features, including Peek and Flow, which allow you to swipe up and over to and see your notifications or messages from any screen. A feature called BlackBerry Balance creates seperate work and personal areas on the phone.
Focus on Applications and the Future
And because it's a modern smartphone it has apps too. Despite software developers' having to create all new applications for the new platform, BlackBerry has secured over 100,000 BlackBerry 10 applications in its store. There are popular ones too, like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Amazon Kindle, Skype, Rdio and more.
However, some key apps like Instagram and Netflix are still missing. Apple and Google have over 700,000 in their respective app stores. Microsoft's Windows Phone faces similar challenges to BlackBerry; as of December 2012, it had 150,000 apps in its store.
"Both app stores are growing in numbers and are rapidly filling out their selection of 'table stakes' apps," Michael Gartenberg, Gartner research director, told ABC News. Yet despite the numbers both Microsoft and BlackBerry are held back by Apple and Google's lead. "Long term it isn't about sheer numbers but quality of the App Store curated experience, where new 'must have' apps go first and the quality of an app on a given platform," Gartenberg added.
While Microsoft and BlackBerry (then RIM) once ruled the smartphone market, the two fell far behind after the introduction of the iPhone and then Android phones. Shipments of BlackBerry phones fell from 46 percent in 2008 to two percent in 2012, according to Research Firm IDC. App makers now prioritize the biggest platforms -- Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
Heins acknowledged BlackBerry's "downward spiral," but says it has learned its lesson from standing still and not keeping up with the industry's rate of innovation.
"You always have to be on your tippy toes," he said. "Yes, BlackBerry 10 is a success, but guess what? We are already working on the next things already, because we know our competitors are good innovators as well." At the end of the interview Heins discussed one of those innovations -- a phone-powered tablet or laptop.
"To me, this is not just the next smartphone. This has the power of a laptop. This is not just a smartphone anymore," he said. "This is your personal computing power. Think about what you can do with that. How many personal computing devices do you carry? Why not unify this to one device that executes all your computing needs?"