After Near-$1B Inventory Write-Down, BlackBerry Starts Selling Unlocked Smartphones Direct To U.S. Buyers

Well that was quick: Not long after T-Mobile announced it would stop carrying BlackBerry hardware in its retail stores (but continue selling them online), the Canadian smartphone maker has revealed a new direct selling model that it likely hopes will shore up that retail channel loss. BlackBerry now offers unlocked Q10 and Z10 smartphones via its own site, for $549.00 and $449.00 respectively.

Those may not be quite bargain basement prices, but they’re cheap enough compared to other unlocked flagship phones from manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, Sony and HTC, and the move is almost certainly tied to BlackBerry’s near-$1 billion write-down on hardware inventory reported last quarter.

The massive write-down was blamed almost entirely on poor performance of the Z10, the BlackBerry 10 flagship device launched last January by the beleaguered BlackBerry, and the first smartphone to be powered by its brand-new operating system. The Z10 was clearly not the rousing success its creators hoped it would be, and the write-down plus the $449 outright price now on offer via its site reflect the fact that there are probably tons of these things just sitting around burning precious and expensive warehouse space.

BlackBerry’s decision to price the Q10 slightly higher might be due to a marginally better reception for the keyboard-sporting design. Having reviewed both devices, the Q10 was definitely the better of the two by a wide margin, if only for basic advantages like longer battery life.

While the pricing and U.S.-only availability of these unlocked devices doesn’t scream “fire sale” just yet, it is worth noting that this is a similar strategy to the one BlackBerry took (back when it was still RIM) with the PlayBook tablet, another big hardware miss for the company. Based on that example, if you’re looking for an unlocked GSM BlackBerry smartphone (unclear why you would be), it’s probably better to wait a little while and watch the company deeply discount both the Z10 and the Q10 in time for the holiday shopping season.

There’s no sign of the Q5 in the direct sales channel just yet. And BlackBerry’s Z30, a new smartphone similar to the Z10 with a built-in bigger battery and larger, lower-pixel density display went on sale in many markets recently, so it also isn’t listed as one of the phones you can buy unlocked from BlackBerry. The company likely won’t have made the same mistake of producing lots of inventory for that device, given the Z10’s track record and the low-key launch it enjoyed, but it’s totally possible those could end up on BlackBerry’s virtual store shelves too, if that’s something you’re into.