BlackBerry launches Passport in make-or-break moment

BlackBerry Passport smartphone

BlackBerry launched the Passport smartphone on Wednesday squarely aimed at business users in a move that many analysts see as a make-or-break product for the once-dominant technology company.

The BlackBerry Passport has a 4.5 inch square screen with a touch-enabled QWERTY keyboard, harking back to the design that proved popular with consumers, when the Canadian firm dominated the smartphone market. It will retail at $599.

CEO John Chen said in a press release that BlackBerry wanted to build a device that "fundamentally changes the way business professionals get work done on their smartphone", highlighting the company's stake in the business market and turn away from consumers.

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The launch comes just two days before BlackBerry announces its second-quarter earnings in a sign that management is becoming increasingly confident about results and reception of the device.

'Critical moment'

The Passport is the first major device launch since the failed BlackBerry 10 phones in 2013 and will be crucial for the company, analysts said – especially since the Ontario-based firm has struggled with profitability over the past few years.

"It's an absolutely critical moment in BlackBerry's history," Windsor Holden, head of forecasting and consultancy at Juniper Research, told CNBC by phone.

BlackBerry Passport smartphone back view

Holden said BlackBerry has been "squeezed in the middle" by the rising dominance of Samsung and Apple as well as emerging Chinese players like Huawei.

Chen, who joined the company in 2013, has embarked on restructuring efforts to turn the company round, and investors have backed him with shares in BlackBerry up 33 percent since his appointment as CEO.

Keyboard is king

The BlackBerry Passport has a high definition screen with a touch keyboard and up to 30 hours of battery life.

BlackBerry's new 10.3 operating system will also be loaded on to the phone and contains a new feature called Blend, which allows users to read messages, access contacts and view media on other devices like a laptop or tablet. This works by connecting the smartphone to a device through a cellular, USB or WiFi connection.

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The company has been teasing features of the phone claiming the big square screen makes reading documents and viewing images easier.

Analysts said that while the battery life and design is attractive, the keyboard would be BlackBerry's biggest differentiator against competitors.

"I think what BlackBerry has in its favour now is that every other handset maker has given up in keyboards," Ian Fogg, head of mobile at IHS, told CNBC by phone.

"If they launch keyboard based devices that are innovative they will be differentiate from other smartphone makers."

Fogg said that while the Passport's core market is enterprise, the phone could also be attractive to everyday consumers

Apple, Samsung threat?

While BlackBerry has laid claim to the business market, the company has several threats on the horizon.

Apple announced a deal with IBM in July to bolster the number of its products such as the iPad in businesses, while Microsoft has also focused some of its mobile division on tapping the enterprise market.

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"Apple and Samsung have both announced new smartphones already this month, while Apple's summer deal with IBM suggests the potential for increased competition for Blackberry's core corporate customer base," Colin Cieszynski, market analyst at CMC Markets, said in a note on Tuesday.

"In the wake of Blackberry's many disappointments over the last several years, it's important for management to show things are getting back on track not only internally but relative to the competition as well."

- By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal