TORONTO – There weren’t any lineups around the block, but Canadians finally had a chance to get their hands on the new BlackBerry smartphone Tuesday as the device went on sale across the country.
The company behind the once-dominant phone joined with Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B) to hold a media event in downtown Toronto, where a small number of customers who preordered the BlackBerry Z10 activated their devices in front of the cameras.
About 24 people showed up at the event, Rogers spokeswoman Michelle Kelly said.
But the fanfare around first day of sales paled in comparison to Apple’s iPhone launches, at which sometimes hundreds of people wait outside stores across the country to be one of the first to own the latest model.
“Twelve years with the same company and I haven’t switched,” said Joseph Santos, a professed BlackBerry loyal, who works as an IT manager in Toronto.
“Being the head of an IT department, there was a lot of pressure to go to an Android phone. I kind of fought them off. This is my last stand here.”
The BlackBerry (TSX:BB) launch comes after several delays left longtime fans either sticking with their older phones or switching to a competitor’s phone. Some analysts have been concerned that BlackBerry’s launch came too late to recover the lustre of its name.
Katie Strong, a resident of Innisfil, Ont., drove about an hour to be at the Toronto launch event.
“I still have the Bold 9900 — I love it,” she said.
“I’m going to keep it, just as a backup I guess. It’s a big thing to go to the new one, but I thought I’d try it.”
The new BlackBerry is expected to sell for around $150 on a three-year contract. Koodo is selling it without a contract for $550.
Albert Lee, a spokesman for Bell, could not provide any preliminary sales statistics, but did say the number of pre-orders the company has seen for the Z10 “were higher than any other BB (BlackBerry) before.”
“We’re seeing intense interest today — sales are quite robust,” Lee said in an email.
Anecdotes from the U.K., where the phone launched last week, suggest the new BlackBerry is selling at a steady pace.
Some stores have reported selling out of the device, though its unclear how many units the locations had received before they ran out.
BlackBerry shares were up again Tuesday in Toronto, gaining 6.7 per cent or 99 cents to $15.96 by midday after closing up 15 per cent Monday.
BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins was on hand for the event at Rogers headquarters, where he met with the telecom carrier’s CEO Nadir Mohamed.
“It’s a big day for BlackBerry,” said Heins.
“We’ve come a long way, we’ve built a whole new platform with the BlackBerry 10, not just a new smartphone.”
While he’s disappointed the BlackBerry is not yet available in the U.S., Heins said its debut stateside next month will likely be helped by the earlier Canadian launch.
“Canada will be raving about the BlackBerry Z10 and consequently will influence the U.S. market,” he said.
Heins said the BlackBerry’s launch into the United States, the company’s biggest customer base by far, is coming later because of the extensive testing required by the U.S. carriers and the regulatory process.
Heins told the BNN business television channel that early sales in the United Kingdom and pre-registration results in Canada are encouraging.
“I don’t have the firm number yet but we also see people migrating from other platforms back to BlackBerry. I think this is a very important snippet. We need to verify that data, but if we can achieve that I think we’ve achieved a lot.”
Later Tuesday, Heins told a crowd of business executives that for the past three weeks, he’s used the device along with BlackBerry’s tablet, Playbook, instead of a laptop.
“Since I started using my BlackBerry Z10, I have purposefully avoided my laptop. I haven’t opened it in three weeks,” said Heins in prepared remarks during a speech at the Empire Club of Canada.
“Using the power of BlackBerry 10 and my BlackBerry PlayBook I have been able to keep moving through one of the busiest times of my life.”
The CEO also made a point to discuss how legal battles over patents, especially in the United States, have been detrimental to the mobile technology industry.
“This past year, our sector spent almost $30 billion in courtrooms — particularly in US courtrooms — defending cases against non-practicing entities — or ‘patent trolls’ — who produce nothing,” he said in prepared remarks.
“Patent trolls hold genuine innovators hostage and patents have become weapons in an international technology arms race. This is crazy. We have to shift our resources from litigation back to innovation, investment and job creation.”
Meanwhile, fans of the phone’s physical keyboard will have to wait a while longer — the new keypad version of the device won’t launch until sometime in April.
While the physical keyboard has long been an essential and beloved tool of so-called CrackBerry addicts, the move to release the touchscreen first was signalled by the company last spring.
The stock has been volatile in the wake of the launch of the new BlackBerry 10 product lineup.
Part of the issue was profit-taking following a huge run-up on anticipation about the new product. But availability has become an issue as U.S. customers won’t be able to get the BlackBerry Z10 until March, a month later than in Canada.