TORONTO - BlackBerry unveiled another new smartphone on Wednesday, this time with a bigger screen and amid minimal fanfare, that appeared designed to attract users who want a midpoint device between a phone and tablet.
But the launch was largely overshadowed by the latest developments from its competitors and reports that the company is planning to deliver another round of layoffs to its operations.
It's the latest setback for the Waterloo, Ont.-based company that has been trying to regain a position in the technology market even as consumers seem to be increasingly losing interest in the brand.
Apple, Samsung and other rivals continue to release new versions of their devices alongside a growing number of players in the tablet market.
The new BlackBerry Z30 comes with a five-inch screen, improved battery life and faster processor than the models released earlier this year, and is about the same size as its competitor, the Samsung Galaxy S4. The device is larger than most smartphones, but smaller than the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which the company recently stopped producing after two years.
BlackBerry took a relatively low-key approach to promote the new device on Wednesday. The phone was announced at an event in Malaysia that even chief executive officer Thorsten Heins didn't attend.
MKM Partners analyst Mike Genovese said Malaysia is one of the few markets where BlackBerry has seen growth in recent years, and he expects that local consumers will value the larger screen more than in North America or Europe where alternatives are aplenty.
"It actually points out how limited this launch really is," Genovese said in an interview from Connecticut.
"I think that we're going to quickly forget about this."
The approach is unusual, especially considering that tech firms often drum up as much enthusiasm as possible for their new devices in hopes they'll eclipse their competitors. Both Apple and Samsung are known for CEOs championing new devices with conferences and streaming live video for loyal fans.
Unlike BlackBerry's hyped launch of its Z10 in January, this time there wasn't a flashy global event anchored by a CEO speech in New York or an appearance by singer Alicia Keys, who has served as the company's global creative director.
Even as the BlackBerry (TSX:BB) announcement was made, it was being overshadowed by early reviews for Apple's new iPhones, which include fingerprint scanning technology and other new features.
Also stealing attention was a report in the Wall Street Journal which said BlackBerry executives could lay off as much as 40 per cent the company's staff — which would equate to as many as 5,000 people — as it moves forward with a three-stage plan to return the company to profitability.
"Organizational moves will continue to occur to ensure we have the right people in the right roles to drive new opportunities in mobile computing," spokeswoman Rebecca Freiburger said in response to the layoff reports.
She declined to directly address the reported number of potential layoffs.
BlackBerry is in the midst of major changes within its own organization and recently formed a committee to consider strategic alternatives, which could include its sale. A reduction in staff would likely coincide with the company's efforts to sell parts of its operations by making them more financially attractive to potential suitors.
Corporate decisions like that have raised questions about the future of the company, which could make the launch of the new BlackBerry Z30 a hard sell for customers.
"I'm just dumbfounded by a lot of the decisions the (BlackBerry) management team has made," said National Bank analyst Kris Thompson in an interview.
"It's unfortunate, but I don't think this phone is going to make a difference."
The BlackBerry Z30 will first arrive in the U.K. and Middle East next week, followed by availability at a number of Canadian carriers in the coming weeks, though specific dates haven't been announced.
The company says the phone has a larger battery that will last for up to 25 hours of "mixed use." Other updates include the latest version of the BlackBerry 10 operating system.
In a separate announcement on Wednesday, BlackBerry said its popular BlackBerry Messenger chat application would become available for the Android operating system on Saturday, while iPhones would be able to download the app starting on Sunday.
The announcement follows the unveiling of a new line of Apple's iPhones last week, which included a lower-priced version of the popular smartphone in various colours.
Samsung also recently debuted its Galaxy Note 3, which has a larger 5.7-inch screen and faster processor than the new Blackberry Z30.
BlackBerry shares ended down 2.2 per cent, or 24 cents, to $10.64 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
© Copyright 2013