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New BlackBerry to be released in US in mid-March

Tuesday - 2/5/2013, 1:34pm  ET

ROB GILLIES
Associated Press

TORONTO (AP) -- A modern BlackBerry with a physical keyboard might not arrive in the U.S. until May or June, a month or two behind other parts of the world, the chief executive of the smartphone maker suggested in an interview.

Although Research in Motion Ltd. CEO Thorsten Heins said the exact release date will depend on each wireless provider, he said the physical keyboard version, the BlackBerry Q10, will likely be released eight to 10 weeks after a carrier releases a model with only a touch screen, the BlackBerry Z10. The Z10 is expected in the U.S. in mid-March, so eight to 10 weeks brings the U.S. date for the Q10 to mid-May to early June.

"We're trying to get it as close as we can," Heins said in an interview this week with The Associated Press.

Both models are part of RIM's attempt at a comeback after the pioneering brand lost its cachet not long after Apple's 2007 release of the iPhone, which reset expectations for what a smartphone should do.

RIM promised a new system called BlackBerry 10 to catch up, using technology it got through its 2010 purchase of QNX Software Systems. But it has taken more than two years to unveil new phones that are redesigned for the new multimedia, Internet browsing and apps experience that customers are now demanding.

RIM said last week that the Q10 should be out on some global carriers in April, but it wouldn't say then whether that schedule applied to the U.S.

In the interview, Heins said it was up to the carriers to do the necessary testing and to decide whether they can shorten the process. He said eight to 10 weeks after the Z10 launch was "a good range" of what to expect.

Such a delay would further complicate RIM's efforts to hang on to customers tempted by Apple's trend-setting iPhone and a range of devices running Google's Android operating system. Even as the BlackBerry has fallen behind rivals in recent years, many BlackBerry users have stayed loyal so far specifically because they prefer a physical keyboard over the touch screen found on the iPhone and most Android devices. But the temptations to switch grow with each additional delay.

Heins told the AP that he's disappointed the touch-only BlackBerry won't be released in the United States until mid-March, but he said the U.S. and its phone carriers have a rigid testing system.

"We need to respect that. Am I a bit disappointed? Yeah, I would be lying saying no. But it is what it is, and we're working with all our carrier partners to speed it up as much as we can," Heins said in Monday's interview at the Ritz Carlton in Toronto, ahead of Tuesday's debut of the touch-only model in Canada.

RIM unveiled new BlackBerrys last week after excruciating delays allowed Apple, Samsung and others to build commanding leads in the industry. The stock fell 12 percent after Wednesday's kickoff, despite mostly favorable reviews about the new BlackBerry 10 operating system. There's concern the phone isn't coming out sooner than the March date for the U.S. announced last week.

Black and white versions of the touch-screen Z10 were released in the U.K. last Thursday and in Canada on Tuesday.

Heins said early data suggests a substantial number of U.K. users are moving from other platforms to BlackBerry, even though RIM initially targeted longtime BlackBerry users.

"It's beyond expectations," Heins said. "White is sold out already. The black is hard to stock up again. It's very encouraging. I won't share the number because I need to verify it, but we are getting a substantial number of users moving from other platforms to BlackBerry."

In Canada, telecom provider Bell said advance orders for the Z10 exceeded that of any previous BlackBerry model. "We're seeing intense interest today," Bell spokesman Mark Langton said. "Sales are quite robust."

RIM's stock increased nearly 8 percent to $16.15 in midday trading Tuesday after closing up 15 percent Monday following initial reports of strong U.K. sales and an upgrade of the stock by an analyst.

Heins said the company would have to regain market share in the U.S. for BlackBerry to be successful. The U.S. has been one market in which RIM has been particularly hurting, even as the company is doing well in many places overseas. According to research firm IDC, shipments of BlackBerry phones plummeted from 46 percent of the U.S. market in 2008 to 2 percent in 2012. The iPhone and Android now dominate.

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