It's finally here: The U.S. launch of the BlackBerry Z10.
For BlackBerry at least, there's a lot at stake, as the phone ($199 with a 2-year contract) arrives on AT&T. This is the device that has to make fans believe in the company again. It's got to lure developers to make apps. And it's got to inspire enterprise customers to buy the revamped server software that's now designed to manage iPhones and Android phones as well as BlackBerry devices.
Investors, clearly, are optimistic: BlackBerry shares are up more than 35% this year on unusually heavy volume; an average of 65 million shares have been trading daily over the last 3 months, compared to around 47 million for Microsoft. But this is the day those hopes begin to face reality. Will there be lines for the Z10? Shortages? Will it sell for a premium on eBay?
And the more fundamental question: Is there even room for a third mobile platform in the fast-moving mobile arena?
Consider: Android is by far the leader, with 70% of the smartphone market in Q4, according to IDC. For all intents and purposes financially speaking, Android means Samsung these days; Samsung is the only profitable maker of Android phones, and it's thus the only one able to spend generously on marketing. Chetan Sharma, a longtime telecom industry analyst, tells CNBC that unless other Android phone makers like HTC, LG and Motorola can score a surprise hit with their new phones, they can write off 2013 as a failure.
And then there's Apple: Although its iOS platform isn't selling as many phones as Android, its phones are far more profitable. Though Apple's stock is a definite loser for 2013, down 13%, it's selling literally 10 times as many phones as BlackBerry can hope to deliver of its new model.
Carriers would like for multiple smartphone vendors to thrive, because they get more pricing power when a million flowers bloom. (Plus, if every carrier is mostly selling iPhones and Galaxy phones, they're forced to compete more on price.) But that doesn't seem to be what's happening.
Just look at Nokia for evidence: It doesn't seem like the U.S. smartphone market is expanding to welcome a third platform — if anything, it's narrowing into a duel between Samsung and Apple. Consider: J.D. Power today released a smartphone customer-satisfaction survey showing that Nokia had jumped a staggering 93 points from a year ago, to score 796 out of 1,000 points, second only to Apple's 855 points. (Nokia's phones use Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system, which is vying with BlackBerry for 3rd place in the platform wars.)
Even so, Nokia announced in January that it would stop paying its dividend, in a bid to conserve cash. It guided to a loss in the current quarter.