BlackBerry's Passport: An enterprise muscle car?

Like a muscle car, BlackBerry's Passport is strong, quirky, has a healthy dose of nostalgia and likely a limited audience. The Passport won't be a bring-your-own-device superstar, but may find a niche in regulated industries.

passportscreen2

"Wow that thing is big."

"Odd shape."

"I miss a keyboard."

"It's old school."

Those were some of the reactions to BlackBerry's Passport when seen in the wild. The BlackBerry Passport, a 4.5-inch diagonal square, is exactly the size of a real passport and rejects the traditional shape of smartphones.

Passport represents BlackBerry's focus on the enterprise — notably regulated verticals such as financial services, government, and healthcare. By outsourcing its app store to Amazon, BlackBerry can run the essential consumer applications needed to be a credible bring-your-own-device play.

That Amazon partnership also frees BlackBerry up to develop industry specific applications.

The screen of Passport, as tall as it is wide, lends itself to applications such as medical image viewers. At launch BlackBerry will highlight a Bloomberg app. Unlike Bloomberg's iOS and Android news apps, the Passport version will be more like the terminals you'll find at Wall Street firms.

When I was briefed by BlackBerry's marketing folks, the word nostalgia came up as much as terms like work containers, industries and security. The Passport aims to bridge the gap between BlackBerry's base, which prefers keyboards, and users that want more modern technology. Passport's keyboard is interesting. It serves as a keyboard as well as a touch pad. BlackBerry 10's ability to learn your keystrokes and text habits improves accuracy.

In other words, Passport is a lot like modern muscle cars.

General Motors' Chevy Camaro, Ford's Mustang and the Dodge Challenger all resemble their 1960s and 1970s versions. The cars pack horsepower, have a healthy dose of nostalgia and target a limited somewhat older audience. Inside, you'll find the modern amenities you'd expect in a current automobile.

The Passport is trying to hit the same vibe. But like current muscle cars, the audience is likely to be limited. What are the sales expectations for the Passport? Again, it's worth looking at the muscle car. Year to date, GM has sold 64,767 Camaros out of nearly 1.39 million Chevrolets sold, or 4 percent. 

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Passport's audience is also likely to be limited. But for corporations looking to hand out devices that can double as tablets, view documents and attachments well and offer a high level of security BlackBerry's device may not seem so freaky. Add it up and I have a hard time imagining the Passport being a bring-your-own-device superstar. I can see companies handing a few of these out.

Should the Passport get traction as a corporate handout it has an outside shot of becoming the ThinkPad of smartphones. 

Unfortunately, the Passport is launching as Microsoft's Nokia phablet, Apple's iPhone 6 Plus, and Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 are all hitting the market at the same time. Simply put, the Passport isn't going to win that beauty contest. But if you're a person who has to digest a ton of attachments, prefers more of a desktop Web experience and lives in email, the Passport is worth a look. The screen dimensions do allow you to digest more content.

The Passport's screen allows for 60 characters on a line. The print standard is 66 characters and the Galaxy Note 3 has 44 characters. In other words, the Passport is more like reading a print doc in terms of what you see on the screen.

"You are able to see more on one screen without a scroll," Sarah Jacobs, senior product marketing manager at BlackBerry, said. "Passport is built for productivity and the target audience is the mobile professional who carries two devices."

Here's a screen of a spreadsheet on the BlackBerry Passport.

passportscreen3

The iPhone 6:

iphone6screenspreadsheet-620x1103

And in landscape:

iphone6screenspreadsheet2

And the iPhone 6 Plus:

iphone6plusscreen-620x1102

The big question is whether BlackBerry can find a real audience for the Passport. A few takeaways to consider for the business exec.

  • The keyboard. I'll admit it. I kinda missed having a keyboard. The Passport's keyboard is different from the BlackBerry devices of yesteryear, but this one is just as good, serves as a touch pad in spots, and uses software to improve accuracy and make suggestions. The rub is that you'll need more than nostalgia to really buy into a keyboard again.

  • Build quality. The BlackBerry Passport feels well made in your hand. It also looks bigger than it is. Technically, the Passport isn't a phablet because the screen isn't large enough. The biggest item to get used to is the square shape and the reality that one-hand use isn't likely. Overall, though the Passport feels premium.

  • This device is an enterprise play and bring-your-own won't be the move. The Passport has one chance to become an enterprise staple: Corporate buying plans and companies looking to give employees secure devices that can double as tablets in spots. It's difficult to envision people bringing in the device as much as being handed one for work.

  • Desktop-ish Web browsing and document reading. The dimensions of the Passport mean you get a more desktop feel to the Web browsing experience. Documents have a similar feel. BlackBerry has done a nice job enabling quality document and spreadsheet rendering. One issue is that Web pages sometimes didn't render well when you zoomed in.

  • Enterprise features. The Passport has a feature called BlackBerry Blend that brings the smartphone to your desktop and tablet. You can text, access an intranet and use corporate address books via a work browser. There are a host of security features that would appeal to the enterprise, but potentially not the user.

  • Messaging is done well. BlackBerry's ascent was largely attributed to mobile email. BlackBerry knows email and the screen dimensions play to its strengths by giving you a larger view of messages.

  • Amazon App integration is lumpy. Amazon is providing the consumer apps for the BlackBerry Passport, but in my spot checks the apps were often buggy. When I tried to download Amazon Instant Video I was bumped to a Web page telling me I needed to get the Android version. In theory, I should have already been in an Android container. Apps are scanned by BlackBerry Guardian for malware, but I found the prompts annoying. The good news is Sirius XM worked so I could get Howard Stern in the morning. For what it's worth, the Howard hurdle is the biggest obstacle in the way for me to ever get a Windows Phone.

  • BlackBerry 10. Although BlackBerry 10 is way better than the first go round when I experienced it, there are some areas that require a learning curve and just feel lumpy. The interface is more flat and modern now, but not exactly snappy in spots.

As for availability, the Passport will be available on Amazon and ShopBlackBerry (sbb.com) in Canada, France, Germany, UK and U.S. Carrier availability wasn't immediately available.

The "introductory offer" pricing goes like this:

  • Canada – $699
  • France – €649
  • Germany – €649
  • UK – £529
  • USA – $599

Contract pricing is expected to be about $249 depending on the carrier and promotions. BlackBerry plans to make the Passport available in more than 30 countries via carriers and distribution partners.

Bottom line: As I've noted before, the BlackBerry Passport is crazy enough to work. But to think that a consumer or mobile professional will make the Passport the No. 1 draft pick in a smartphone/phablet bakeoff may be a bit unrealistic.

If the Passport succeeds it will do so because regulated corporations — BlackBerry's sweet spot in its turnaround plan — will hand out the smartphone as a work device.

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