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Investors cheer new BlackBerry Passport, even as reviewers jeer

Aaron Pressman
BlackBerry Chief Executive John Chen uses a Passport smartphone following the official launch event in Toronto, September 24, 2014. BlackBerry launched an unconventional new smartphone dubbed the Passport on Wednesday, as it embarked on potentially the most critical phase of its long turnaround push. REUTERS/Aaron Harris (CANADA - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TELECOMS)

The long-deposed king of the smartphone, BlackBerry (BBRY), unveiled its own latest, greatest iteration of the now ubiquitous mobile knowledge worker tool on Wednesday, but it didn’t go over too well with most reviewers.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Joanna Stern called the new BlackBerry Passport phone bulky, awkward and unfamiliar. At the New York Times, Molly Wood says the Passport “makes a strong case — but not quite strong enough.” And Yahoo Tech’s own David Pogue says the new model is “unusual, innovative, and weird,” and likely will have a future only with a select audience.

But investors liked what they heard from CEO John Chen, not just about the new phone but also about the company’s entire approach to woo back more of the big corporate and government clients that used to rely on BlackBerry. BlackBerry shares jumped almost 4% in midday trading, to a session high of $10.99, and have climbed close to 50% so far this year.

With BlackBerry’s smartphone market share down to less than a single percentage point worldwide, it wouldn’t take much for the Passport to turn things around. And Chen offered a persuasive case for the strategy behind the design of the Passport, one in which device sales are of diminishing importance amid greater revenue from software and systems.

A niche target

Chen says the phone is intended to appeal to fewer than one in ten smartphone users, the hardcore of his company’s former audience. These customers, mainly lawyers, bankers and government worker bees, care more about efficiency and security, and use email and voice calls far more than the average Snapchatting, Instagram-posting smartphone user.

The phone has a physical keyboard, of course, along with an enhanced in-box style message center that combines emails, texts, voicemail and other notifications in a running list. The (relatively) massive square screen shows far more text than any other smartphone, and the battery is said to last for three days. Now compatible with Android apps, the new phone will come loaded with Amazon's (AMZN) app store in addition to BlackBerry's.

Still, even with his niche focus, Chen couldn’t resist getting a few digs at his more popular – and populist – competitors. “I would challenge you guys to bend our Passport,” Chen joked, referring to the recent controversy regarding bent iPhone 6 Pluses in some pants pockets.

The real challenge for BlackBerry’s new phone won’t be whether it outperforms Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 6 or Samsung’s Galaxy S5 among the general populace. It will be whether the phone’s unique features and differentiated approach appeal to the remaining core of old-time BlackBerry users. And on that score, the Passport is no doubt somewhat more appealing — but with a few major issues.

Reviewers have identified the keyboard as a serious problem. There is no dedicated shift key, the space bar is placed oddly and the overall width slows typing, according to various gadget junkies who have been using the phone for the past few weeks.

Also, even with Amazon's Android app store, the phone’s app ecosystem is still missing too many newer players – not just “fun” apps such as Instagram but also uber-businessy apps such as, well, Uber.

BlackBerry also plans to release another new model, with a design more similar to BlackBerrys of old, dubbed the Classic. If Chen can attract enough of the old core while he transitions the company to revenue from more-dependable sources, he just may pull off one of the great turnarounds in tech history.