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BlackBerry’s US debut for Z10 is big test of comeback

People in Jakarta got to purchase the Blackberry Z10 on March 15.

BAY ISMOYO /AFP/Getty Images

People in Jakarta got to purchase the Blackberry Z10 on March 15.

TORONTO — BlackBerry’s new Z10 smartphone goes on sale in the United States this weekend, almost two months after its debut in other countries, putting the company’s comeback plan to the test in its largest single market.

Chief executive Thorsten Heins was scheduled to kick off US sales Thursday night at a theater in New York. The event, where rapper Ludacris and R&B singer Janelle Monae were to perform, marks the arrival of the Z10 at AT&T stores on Friday. The phone will be offered by Verizon Wireless March 28.

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Heins is trying to reverse BlackBerry’s fortunes in the United States, where the onetime smartphone leader has lost ground to Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. Sales fell by almost half to $520 million in the third quarter from a year earlier, through the United States still accounts for about a fifth of revenue for Waterloo, Ontario-based BlackBerry.

‘‘There’s no risk of overstating the importance of the US for BlackBerry,’’ said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. ‘‘It’s such an important bellwether market.’’

AT&T, the second-largest US carrier, will offer the Z10 for $199.99 on a two-year contract, putting it at the same price level as the main iPhone. The phone was first unveiled Jan. 30, and it’s been available for weeks in Britain, Canada, and other markets. Heins has attributed the US delay to the longer equipment-testing procedures of American carriers.

Verizon Wireless, the nation’s biggest carrier, has begun taking orders for the Z10. Sprint Nextel, number three 3 in the market, won’t sell the Z10; it’s waiting to offer the Q10, a version with a smaller screen and physical keyboard that’s coming out later this year.

BlackBerry splurged on a Super Bowl ad in February, betting it could build excitement around the phone even though a US debut wasn’t imminent. Now that the Z10 is here, the key to its success will be how well sales people demonstrate how the phone works to both BlackBerry loyalists and others, said IDC’s Llamas.

‘‘This is an entirely different platform,’’ he said.

Critics have praised the Z10’s features, including its virtual keyboard. It also lacks a home button, which is used by the iPhone or Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy S to take users back to the main screen. The Z10 relies on gesture-driven navigation to switch between applications and peek at messages.

Shares of the company, formerly known as Research In Motion, have rallied 36 percent this year on optimism that the new lineup can revive BlackBerry’s prospects.

The stock added 1 percent Thursday, closing at $16.16. Still, it remains down almost 90 percent from its 2008 high of $147.55.

The staggered rollout of the devices makes it tougher for analysts to predict the impact on quarterly results. Sales estimates for the period ended March 2 range from 2.41 billion to $3.42 billion. The average estimate is $2.84 billion. While that would represent a decline of 32 percent from a year earlier, it’s a smaller drop than the company posted the previous quarter.

Ehud Gelblum, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, raised his rating on the stock to the equivalent of “buy,” citing the potential for BlackBerry 10 phones to lift the company’s average selling price and profitability.

Still, BlackBerry will struggle to regain lost market share, he said.

The new device, he said, will appeal mainly to existing BlackBerry users looking to upgrade, rather than gaining converts from Android and Apple’s iOS operating system.

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