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Smartphone maker BlackBerry Priv, company's first Android device, goes on sale

TORONTO – With BlackBerry’s latest smartphone now on store shelves, the question turns to whether consumers will be convinced to carry it in their pockets.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based technology company is reaching for mainstream audiences for the first time in years with the BlackBerry Priv smartphone.

The device runs the Android operating system, instead of BlackBerry’s own operating software, a first for the company.

But it could also be the last if the Priv doesn’t sell.

Chief executive John Chen has said BlackBerry’s hardware division needs to become profitable before the end of its fiscal year on Feb. 29, or the company may stop making phones and focus mainly on growing sales of its security software.

By his calculations, BlackBerry needs to sell five million phones in the current fiscal year to break even, and with the company about halfway through its financial year, it still needs to sell roughly three million phones.

Most of those sales will have to come from the Priv device, since BlackBerry’s Passport and Classic are considered antiquated in the ever-evolving technology market.

The Priv is sleek and modern, with its 5.4-inch screen, 18-megapixel camera and a dual-touch screen and slider keyboard option.

But it also comes with a hefty price tag of $899 at BlackBerry’s Canadian web store without a carrier contract, making it the most expensive Android phone on the market.

“This is a buttoned-up device that seems more at home in the boardroom than it would at the bar or pool hall,” said Ramon Llamas, research manager of mobile phones at IDC Canada, a market research firm.

“If you were a Blackberry user in the past, absolutely there’s stuff to like here.”

Making an Android phone resolves one of the biggest criticisms levelled against BlackBerry — a lack of apps that left it behind its competitors in an era where customers increasingly use their phones to stream movies and upload photos.

Traders appeared to be optimistic about the prospects of the new device, sending BlackBerry’s stock up 6.5 per cent to close at $10.65 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Availability for the BlackBerry Priv rolls out Friday from Rogers, Bell and Telus. Both Wind Mobile and Sasktel will begin carrying the phone on Monday, said a BlackBerry spokesman.

Over the coming weeks, the BlackBerry Priv will be front-and-centre at Canadian carriers with a featured role in holiday marketing campaigns, which wasn’t the case last year for the BlackBerry Passport, a phone aimed squarely at business users.

Some of BlackBerry’s advertising will emphasize the phone’s heightened privacy features, which includes an app called DTEK that monitors how your phone is being monitored by third parties.

“We feel like we’ve got an opportunity to make people aware,” said Ron Louks, president of devices and emerging Solutions at BlackBerry. “We’ve got a good opportunity to convert old BlackBerry users, who may have switched to other operating systems but loved the keyboard, to come back to BlackBerry.”

Advance orders for the Priv have been higher than figures for its recent Passport, Classic and Leap devices, the company has said, though it hasn’t provided presales figures.

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