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Tech Lab

Long-spurned BlackBerry poised to win affection anew

NEW YORK — The struggling company BlackBerry, formerly Research in Motion Ltd., offered hundreds of free devices at an event in Manhattan Wednesday to launch its long-delayed revamped smartphone. The crowd cheerfully accepted — a good omen given how BlackBerry lately couldn’t seem to give its phones away.

Better yet, the phones are worth paying for. Using an overhauled operating system, the Z10 touchscreen phone is a smart, snappy little marvel that ought to put BlackBerry right back at the leading edge of the industry.

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But is it enough to reverse the spectacular fall of a company so successful that the name of its marquee product, the BlackBerry, was synonymous with mobile computing? Where it once held nearly half the US market for smartphones, BlackBerry now accounts for a mere 2 percent.

Crawford Del Prete, a smartphone analyst for IDC Corp. in Framingham, said the new BlackBerry should help reverse the slide in sales.

“In the near term, it will be enough to get BlackBerry loyalists to stay with the platform,” said Del Prete.

Well-built, reliable, and with a familiar traditional keyboard, the BlackBerry introduced a new addiction to American culture — messaging on the run. The devices were especially popular with corporations and government users because the software was tailored to protect business communications.

Then came Apple Inc.’s iPhone and a horde of devices running Google Inc.’s Android software, with big, bright touchscreens that were much better for surfing websites and looking at videos.

Android sets and iPhones could also access hundreds of thousands of software apps, while BlackBerry devices had far fewer such programs because their developers said it was too difficult to write software for the phones, and less profitable, too.

The company has since been written off as roadkill by most professional know-it-alls — the same ones who in 1996 expected Apple to file for bankruptcy instead of rehiring that Jobs guy.

I doubt there is a Jobs-like genius at BlackBerry, but somebody there knows how to write marvelous software.

The phone itself is rather generic. You’ve got your 4-inch screen, dual-core processor, and standard 8-megapixel high-definition camera. What you don’t have on the Z10 is BlackBerry’s trademark physical keyboard. For that you can buy the Q10, due out later this year.

The overall package feels a little plasticky and not as solid as an old-school BlackBerry, but certainly up to the standards of most smartphones. (Speaking of standards, as per Boston Globe policy, the phone I received from BlackBerry to review will be returned to the company.)

The excitement begins when you start using the phone, though the thrills are sometimes offset by irritating new moves users must learn.

Like getting out of an app: You swipe upward, which shoves the app into a corner of the screen, where it remains open. You can have four apps on the screen in this fashion, more if you scroll up or down.

This is the new BlackBerry software way of multitasking, and it is vastly more intuitive than the pushbutton approach of the iPhone. Users should have plenty of opportunities to multitask, as BlackBerry claims there are already 70,000 apps available for the new phone.

There is such a thing as too much multitasking, and here the BlackBerry 10 anticipates the juggling act of messages coming at us from every which way — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and e-mail too. The BlackBerry has a feature called Hub that lets users manage their messages all in one place.

Microsoft tried something like this in its Windows Phone, but BlackBerry’s version is better designed and easier to use. With BlackBerry Hub, you can easily check your messages and reply to them without having to flit from one app to another.

BlackBerry also has a remarkably smart new way to type on virtual keyboards. The iPhone and Android sets try this by reading the first few keys you type, then guessing the complete word. It can speed up typing, but the process is often hit and miss.

By contrast, the BlackBerry offers several suggested words as you type along, with each suggestion hovering over the letter key that would come next in spelling.

For example, say I’m typing the word “thanks,” and I’ve already hit the “t” and the “h.” BlackBerry 10 offers three suggestions: The word “the” appears over the “e” key, “this” over the “i” key, and “thanks” over the “a” key. To finish typing “thanks,” just swipe your finger upward over the “a” key.

I usually use speech recognition when typing on a phone. But this new typing system is so effective and clever that I might just shut up.

How can a product this good not be a hit? Well, Microsoft’s Windows Phone is also excellent, but while it is starting to catch on in Europe, Americans want no part of it.

Yet BlackBerry has a massive advantage that Microsoft doesn’t.

Despite its recent lackluster sales, the company still has 80 million users worldwide. And like those fanatic Apple lovers who kept using Mac computers even during the bad times, many BlackBerry customers are exceptionally loyal.

While getting rave reviews from many tech specialists, the BlackBerry 10 got a more lukewarm reception from another audience the company desperately needs: Wall Street. BlackBerry’s stock price fell 12 percent as investors seemed underwhelmed by the case the company made for its new phone Wednesday.

The market should be big enough for Blackberry 10 to find a place. IDC, for example, forecasted annual sales of smartphones will grow to 2.2 billion in 2016, from around 1.7 billion last year.

Moreover, the tech research firm predicts BlackBerry can increase sales by 14.6 percent a year — with one important caveat: so long as staffers at phone retailers and other resellers can effectively pitch the wonders of the new product.

I doubt that the BlackBerry 10 will make a dent in iPhone or Android sales.

But it could prove devastating for Microsoft, which had counted on defectors from BlackBerry to bolster its phone sales. And BlackBerry won’t even have to give its phones away.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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