BlackBerry Quietly Announces Its First Phablet — But Z30 Could Be Its Last Big Phone

BlackBerry has confirmed earlier rumours that it was flirting with building a phablet and quietly taken the wraps off its biggest phone yet: the all-touch BlackBerry Z30 packs a 5-inch Super AMOLED display, which puts it on the cusp of phablet territory and a step up on the the screen real estate offered by its previous all-touch flagship, the 4.2 inch Z10.

BlackBerry is describing the Z30 as the “fastest and most advanced” phone in its portfolio — with a 1.7 GHz processor plus quad-core graphics (vs the Z10’s dual-core 1.5 GHz chip), a 2880 mAh battery (the largest cell it’s ever put in a phone) and an improved antenna designed to boost reception in low-signal areas.

It’s not a huge BB10 OS portfolio, though, with the Z30 becoming just the fourth device in BlackBerry’s next-gen range — after the all-touch Z10, the QWERTY-packing Q10 and the mid-range Q5. Sales of BB10 devices have not been huge either — with the company shipping just 2.7 million BB10 handsets in Q1. Adding a phablet — a niche, flagship device — to its playbook at this point is not an obvious choice to try to amp up sales. Arguably an attractively priced mid-tier all-rounder with the potential to ship in very high volumes would have been a better bet.

Instead, BlackBerry appears to be going back to its businessy roots by aiming the Z30 at enterprise users.  “The [Z30] is designed for people looking for a smartphone that excels at communications, messaging and productivity. Having apps like the full Documents To Go suite that comes preinstalled, together with its 5″ touch display, the BlackBerry Z30 smartphone gives you a best in class productivity experience on the go,” said Carlo Chiarello, Executive Vice President for Products at BlackBerry, in a statement.

As well as its big screen and beefy battery, the Z30 stands out from its fellows for being the first device running BlackBerry OS 10.2 — the latest version of the OS which won’t be pushed out to the Z10, Q10 and Q5 til mid-October at the earliest (carrier foot-dragging may well drag that timeframe out).

Updates in BB10.2 include a new Priority Hub feature which sounds a bit like Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature, by learning which conversations and people are important to you to foreground their messages and notifications, along with a new pan-app message preview feature that lets users view a message preview in any app and reply without leaving the app if they wish. The preview feature also extends to the lock screen where users can tap to view recent messages and notifications.

Other tweaks in 10.2 include improvements to the audio of BBM Voice and BBM Video chats — to make them sound “more natural and realistic” — and battery enhancements. The Z30 apparently supports up to 25 hours of “mixed use”.

BlackBerry said the Z30 will go on sale, beginning next week, in the U.K. and Middle East, with “all other regions” getting the device during the holiday season. Pricing and specific availability by market is tbc.

Of all the days in the year to choose to launch a new flagship phone, the morning after Apple’s iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c reviews embargo lifts seems an odd choice. It’s almost as if BlackBerry has given up trying. Or that this phone was designed before company priorities crystalised around “strategic alternatives” — like seeking a buyer for its business.

The Z30’s low-key launch feels like BlackBerry going through the motions of being a handset maker, while it tries to find someone else to take on its handset-making business. And if that’s the case, a phablet is fittingly large enough to accommodate an epitaph should another veteran smartphone maker make an exit from the fiercely competitive phone-making business.