ORLANDO, Fla. - BlackBerry announced an expansion of its popular BlackBerry Messenger service to iPhones and Android devices this summer and a new smartphone aimed at emerging markets as it kicked off its annual technology conference Tuesday.
Chief executive Thorsten Heins said the time was right for BBM, a key feature of BlackBerry smartphones, to be available on Apple's iOS and Google Android devices.
"BBM actually was a key element of (why) people were going to BlackBerry," he said after the unveiling of the smartphone maker's plans in a keynote address to the three-day BlackBerry Live conference.
"We feel this platform and its product are standing on its own legs. That is the time to release BBM to another level and really let BBM flourish on its own."
The move is a gamble for the company which has many loyal users who have stuck with their BlackBerry devices just to keep access to BBM. But the messaging service has run into competition from other similar options like WhatsApp and Waterloo, Ont.-based Kik Messenger, both which are available on BlackBerry and other phones.
BBM offers a more seamless and secure experience that includes video chat, an option that many of its competitors don't offer yet. The iPhone and Android version of the application, which will be available for free, will start with text messaging and then roll out other features including video and channels, Heins said.
BlackBerry (TSX:BB) has been on a roll in recent months, launching its first new smartphone products in several years with the BlackBerry 10 slate of both touchscreen and physical keyboard models.
The BlackBerry Q5, which was announced Tuesday, will sport a physical keyboard and a 3.1-inch screen. It will be available in several colours including red, black, white and pink in selected markets in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America starting in July.
The phone will not be released in North America for now, and its expected selling price wasn't revealed.
Heins has said he wants Blackberry to create a portfolio of smartphones that expands beyond the higher priced models into both a mid-priced and entry level version of the device.
"We're happy to provide the devices and the experience that our customers need from us at various price points, and that varies across countries," he told the audience of thousands of tech industry players, analysts and media.
The head of BlackBerry traded the humility he exuded at the conference last year for a higher level of assuredness. While not all of its critics have been won over, BlackBerry has come a long way from when it was still struggling to get a new phone on the market and questions swirled about whether it would sell its operations to a competitor.
"Some people told me last year would be the last conference for BlackBerry and it would be my first and last time to stand on this stage," he said.
"I'm happy to say they were wrong."
BlackBerry still has a formidable battle on its hands though, with the Samsung Galaxy phone series gaining traction and a new iPhone expected later this year.
Sales numbers for the new BlackBerrys have been slowly trickling out from Canada and the U.K., though figures from the U.S. will not be made public until the company reports its quarterly earnings in late June.
In the meantime, some of the most popular apps remain missing from the new BlackBerry operating system, including Netflix and Instagram, but after years of neglect Heins says there has been progress in bringing more app developers on side.
The BlackBerry World store now offers more than 120,000 apps, up from 70,000 on Jan. 30, he said.
Heins also announced Skype and synthesizer maker Moog would be launching apps for the new phones.
Whether the new BlackBerry devices will be considered a success still remains to be seen, though Heins seems prepared to take any criticism that might come his way.
"You will always have people that are kind of, let me say, in a very limited view. Like: 'When are you going to take on Apple?'" he said.
"That's not the way I'm thinking about this."
Heins wants BlackBerry products to etch their own segment of the market, rather than be a "me too" device.
"The point is, this market is going to be so big that it's going to support several players. The question is ... where are you playing?" he said.
While the Z10 touchscreen model has been on sale in the U.S. since March, it's popular Q10 physical keyboard will arrive in stores early June.
Shares in the company closed down 49 cents or about three per cent at $15.55 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
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