BlackBerry unveiled the Passport on Wednesday, its boldest phone design since it went from pagers to handsets.
Many critics will make the mistake of comparing its prospects to Apple's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, but it's not competing in the same arena.
Put another way, BlackBerry Passport will be a breathtaking success if it sells as many phones in six months as the 10 million that Apple sold last weekend. Under CEO John Chen, BlackBerry has staked its future on becoming a provider of secure enterprise software. Apple is selling phones while BlackBerry is using phones to market its focus on the secure enterprise.
The Passport, which will cost $599 off-contract, is block-shaped and square-faced. BlackBerry's explanation for the design makes sense: The display shows 60 characters of text at a readable size and shows enough depth in a document to get context, making it the best I've seen for reviewing and annotating documents.
Skeptics of the shape will question how it fits in a pocket, but it slips in about as easily as its namesake, the universally pocketable passport. It will be a snug fit in skinny jeans, but this phone won't bend in there—unlike the iPhone 6 Plus.
The software is likely to surprise people who give it a try. The Passport runs Android 4.4 apps remarkably smoothly, thanks to an emulator; the Amazon App Store comes preloaded on it, and nearly every app you can get for a Kindle or Fire Phone is available for the Passport, too.
Less eye-catching, but more potentially valuable, long-term? BlackBerry Blend, a feature that allows users to securely operate many features on their phones from a PC or tablet. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), text messaging, contacts, calendars and media are all accessible, without storing them in a cloud somewhere. With this feature, a BlackBerry device is acting as a server, in a sense. This feature could be a product category all its own; maybe BlackBerry should resurrect the pager, as a secure hardware device.
Will the Passport sell? BlackBerry's hope is that it will appeal to the elite smartphone user that its brand used to own: The affluent, workaholic doer who cares less about trends and logos than getting things done. The company's marketers have studied the demographic, and found they already tend to carry more than one device.
It will be an uphill battle. Enterprises, once BlackBerry's stronghold, increasingly have embraced iPhones and Android devices as inevitable, and are relying on software to make the devices more secure. And as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus demonstrate, large-screen phones are in. We'll see if that includes square screens.