Any doubt that the BlackBerry 10 is central to the survival of Research In Motion was likely erased on Wednesday as the company not only unveiled its new operating system and phones, but changed its corporate name to "BlackBerry," too. "We have a fantastic brand, BlackBerry, and we are known as such all over the world, except in North America," CMO Frank Boulben commented in a video interview at the launch. "We wanted to take full advantage of that global, iconic brand."
"We have redefined ourselves inside and out," said CEO Thorsten Heins, speaking from New York to launch events held across the globe, including one held at the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, in its $650-a-night Armani Hotel. "RIM becomes BlackBerry. It is one brand, it is one promise." He declined to specify the company's marketing spend for the corporate rebrand and a global launch of BlackBerry 10 that includes Sunday's Super Bowl ad buy, but characterized it as in the "hundreds of million dollars."
That was partially evident at the New York launch with the introduction of Grammy Award winning singer Alicia Keys as the company's "global creative director." It's a trend that follows Lady Gaga's arrangement with Polaroid, will.i.am with Intel, Victoria Beckham with Range Rover, and Keys' husband Swizz Beatz with Reebok — and no doubt annoys creative directors.
"I was in a long-term relationship with BlackBerry, and then I started to notice some new, kind of hotter, attractive, sexier phones at the gym, and I kind of broke up with you for something that had a little more bling," Keys said to Heins at the launch, according to ABC News. "I always missed the way you organized my life and the way you were there for me at my job. So I started to have two phones, I was playing the field. But then you called and you said you were working it out. And now, we are exclusively dating again."
The born-again BlackBerry brand ambassador, who declined to name the other mobile brand she was two-phoning with (update: Keys was a self-described "iPhone junky" until five days ago), promised to be hands on in her new role while connecting the company with key influencers in the entertainment industry — and beyond.
According to a press release, she "will work closely with app developers, content creators, retailers, carriers and the entertainment community to further shape and enhance the BlackBerry 10 platform, and inspire creative use through its remarkable capabilities and functionality. From music to books, to film, to apps, Keys will lead the charge of enhancing entertainment consumption and distribution, through the power of BlackBerry 10."
As part of that brief, she's overseeing the brand's new "Keep Moving" initiative to engage other cultural influencers (a la Intel's Creators Project or Canon's Ron Howard-led Project Imaginat10n) including writer Neil Gaiman and director Robert Rodriguez. In the video below, she says she'll be making a video for the brand during her current "Girl on Fire" concert tour in collaboration with fans, using BlackBerry 10's Story Maker video editing feature.
It's a marked contrast from Pepsi, for instance, which is partnering with Beyonce in a creative collaboration that kicks off with a Super Bowl halftime show. Keys will be in New Orleans on Game Day, too, singing the national anthem and appearing in BlackBerry's first Super Bowl ad.
Along with a radically different operating system, the company introduced two new phones — the keyboard-equipped Q10 and the touch-screen Z10 — which employ a gesture-based interface similar to Apple's pioneering iPhone. Yet the new BlackBerry OS offers a host of distinct features.
"Flow," for instance, allows users to move between apps with the mere swipe of a finger, while "Balance" partitions users' work and personal worlds into two distinct environments, keeping data and messages in each from intermingling. Balance "is clearly designed with an eye toward retaining and, more important, luring back corporate users,” The New York Times noted.
Both phones sport a sharp 4.2-inch screen display and sports 16 gigabytes of storage, a memory-card slot for expansion and front and back cameras that record in high definition (1080p back, 720p front). Popular BlackBerry Message software enables free phone and video calls while screencasting.
Other features include Story Maker, which automatically grabs photos and turns them into videos with music, and an ability to "learn" and mimic users' writing patterns. Time Shift, its photo software, allows selections to be made from a series of quickly shot images.
BlackBerry 10 will launch with 70,000 apps including Angry Birds, Skype, Yelp, Twitter, Spotify, Foursquare, Dropbox, the New York Times and Amazon Kindle, while noticeably missing are Netflix, Draw Something, Pinterest, Hipstamatic, Instagram and major airline and bank apps.
Also on offer with the new Z10 and Q10, a vast range of entertainment options, including an integrated solution for music, movies and TV shows, with major content partners including Walt Disney Studios and Sony Pictures, Universal Music and Warner Music Group.
The Z10 will not be available in the U.S. until March, while the United Kingdom will be able to purchase it Thursday, Canada on Feb. 5 and the United Arab Emirates on Feb. 10. Verizon will sell it for $199 on a two-year agreement, with other carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile expected to offer similar deals.
Release dates and a price for the Q10 were not given on Wednesday. Asked about the delay in rolling out the phone in the U.S., Heins told The Wall Street Journal: "We met with about 100 carriers. Some of them were very supportive, because they knew it was something really different that they absolutely wanted. The U.S., with nationwide LTE, probably has the most rigorous testing cycles. So even to enter a lab you need to have already an entry lab certification, then you get certified at the lab. So this can lead to pretty long test cycles.”
"I really do believe that the consumer market as a whole is ready for something new," said Kevin Burden, head of mobility at Strategy Analytics, to Reuters ahead of the BB10 reveal. "I have to believe that there is some level of user fatigue that plays into the longevity of some of these platforms," he added, referring to Google Inc.'s Android and Apple's iOS, which are both more than five years old. "RIM is probably timing it right."
Initial reaction to BB10 was proving generally positive. New York Times tech reviewer David Pogue called the phone "lovely, fast and efficient, bristling with fresh, useful ideas. BlackBerry is no longer an incompetent mess — and its doom is no longer assured." Analyst Peter Misek of Jefferies & Co. said BB10 and the new phones put BlackBerry "back in the game," while Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research, said "the device lives up to the hype."
The company's stock price slumped at the news, however. And success will depend on carriers, app developers and corporate clients noted Mark Sue, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets. "So it comes down to how many 'likes' BlackBerry can get from its friends," he said.
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