Welcome to BlackBerry's Bold 'Work All the Time' Gambit

The BlackBerry Passport Courtesy BlackBerry

The opening page of the marketing material handed out with BlackBerry’s new Passport device reads, “How to be a success at everything: How I learned to get the most out of every week’s 168 hours.” It’s perhaps the most utilitarian pitch ever for a smartphone. This makes sense, given BlackBerry’s history as an e-mailing dynamo for white-collar workers, as well as the Passport’s target audience of investors, health-care professionals, and government employees. The slogan, though, verges on depressing. It never even entertains the notion of entertainment, and, sadly, the device suffers from the same failings.

The Passport is a weird-looking thing. It’s square-shaped with a three-row physical keyboard at the bottom of the device. A lot of pros come with this design choice. The most obvious is the keyboard, which works as well as a keyboard ever has and allows people to fire off e-mails with impunity. According to BlackBerry, the square design also makes it possible to display 60 characters per line across the screen comfortably, vs. the average of 40 characters on other smartphones, which BlackBerry disparagingly refers to as “all-touch” devices. There’s some truth to this claim. Reading websites, e-mails, and documents is, in my experience with a test unit, more pleasant on the BlackBerry than on your standard rectangle-shaped smartphone.

There are other major pros to the Passport. The keyboard has some very clever word-recognition functions. As you begin to type, three choices—left, middle, and right—are presented on the screen. If the word you want is on the left, a light slide of your thumb across the left side of the keyboard will select the word. You use the same technique for the word on the right, with a slide across the space bar for the middle word. Algorithms running in the background learn the words you use most often to refine the choices over time. Once you get the hang of this, you can type incredibly fast without taking your fingers off the device. You can scroll up and down Web pages by nudging the keyboard in a similar fashion, which means you don’t need to block the screen with your finger and drag down a Web page to see more text.

BlackBerry has done a pretty miraculous job with its special Hub location on the phone. This software unifies the vast majority of your e-mail, messaging, and social networking accounts. It’s much nicer at times to have all of these services pour into one place instead of hopping from app to app. BlackBerry has a virtual assistant, like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, that can mine messaging services for calendar details and help you create messages and appointments.

The company is perhaps most proud of its Blend app. This software links a person’s BlackBerry with a PC and other devices from Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Blend, in effect, creates a secure link among the various devices and makes it so that all your calendars and e-mail messages appear in one place. It’s a smart bit of code that does a nice job of uniting your professional and home worlds.

The downside of the Passport is that it really is weird. It looks weird. It feels weird. It’s simply weird in the 2014 era of smartphones. While companies such as Apple and Microsoft are taking massive strides, month by month, to combine productivity and entertainment, BlackBerry is making the statement that you don’t need it all.

The device relies heavily on Amazon’s Android app store, which is not the most happening place to be. And the app section of the phone, while adequate, is not a step forward in any interesting direction.

BlackBerry has made a bold, clear commitment to what it calls “mobile pros” and the idea of “working wide.” It’s often good to see conviction and solid execution behind it. There’s a lot of that going on with the Passport. But I doubt there’s enough special sizzle with the product to get people en masse to give BlackBerry another chance.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.