BlackBerry (NYSE:BB) has become so irrelevant as a consumer device company that it's actually news that President Barack Obama still uses one. But with the release of the company's new Passport smartphone, it's possible that the brand will once again be viable, and headlines like "Barack Obama still uses a BlackBerry: The leader of the free world needs to upgrade" will no longer be accurate.
It's an unlikely comeback in a field where second acts are rare and falling out of favor usually sends you to the scrap heap alongside a pile of Palm Pilots.
The Passport, an oddly shaped device with a five-star rating from 320 Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) reviews, has sat at, or near, the top of the "best-selling unlocked cell phones chart" since the online retailer, along with BlackBerry, slashed the price of the device from $699 to $499. Add in the fact that the smartphone's maker is offering aggressive incentives to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone users and it's possible that the left-for-dead brand could have a hit (albeit a mild one) on its hands.
What is the Passport?
The Passport is a reimagining of the classic BlackBerry. It has a physical keyboard, something which no other top-tier modern smartphone offers. In addition to that, the device has a unique design -- it's literally shaped like a passport -- which the company explains as follows:
Boundary-breaking and purpose-built for productivity, the BlackBerry Passport smartphone challenges the status quo. BlackBerry Passport comes with a new large square touch screen for an amazing viewing and reading experience, giving you wider vision that unleashes your capabilities to do mobile business the way you have always wanted.
That's a whole lot of marketing hype, but Passport does fill a need. BlackBerry was once a tool for business people, and it's possible that Apple's disdain for keyboards, which has been copied by most Android Phone makers, leaves room for a phone aimed at those users. Now that BlackBerry has a device which is being well-received, it's possible that an unsatisfied army of former "CrackBerry" addicts are ready to return to the fold.
How far has BlackBerry fallen?
Once a major player, BlackBerry has fallen into near irrelevance. If the company can make itself relevant again, this won't be the 2013 Red Sox going from worst to first -- this would be the Montreal Expos somehow winning the 2014 World Series.
In the second quarter of 2014, BlackBerry had a .5% share of the smartphone market, according to IDC. That's a stunning drop from three years before, when the company commanded 13.6% of the market. Once a market leader, BlackBerry is not only being beaten by Apple and Android, it has fallen well behind Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone
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Despite the poor sales, IDC has seen some small signs of life from the company, noting that .5% is actually an increase.
"This is a good sign for the struggling smartphone maker, as most of the increase this quarter came from its BlackBerry 10 devices," the report said. "This represents only the second quarterly increase for BlackBerry 10 since its release in 2013."
The rise of the iPhone and the subsequent introduction of Android makes it unlikely that BlackBerry will ever climb back to its former position. Many of the business users which once clung to their BlackBerry devices like babies to a bottle have moved on.
It is possible, though, that enough of that past audience remains unsatisfied by the lack of top-tier phones with a physical keyboard for BlackBerry to carve out a small niche. Positive word of mouth and aggressive pricing may lead a slow trickle of former enthusiasts back to the brand.
Good reviews and climbing momentum are the start of what will be a long, nearly impossible journey for BlackBerry -- one which will be hampered by the fact that the Passport does not work with Verizon (NYSE:VZ) or Sprint (NYSE:S) -- but a chance is more than most would have given the company just a few months ago.