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BlackBerry shares slide as new devices face uphill battle

By Euan Rocha

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The afterglow of Research In Motion Ltd's BlackBerry 10 unveiling faded on Thursday as a flurry of lukewarm reviews signaled the company's struggle to regain momentum in the hyper-competitive smartphone market was just beginning.

Shares of BlackBerry, RIM's new corporate name, fell almost 10 percent early on Thursday, after a 12 percent decline the previous day, as some tech analysts questioned whether the new BB10 devices the company launched on Wednesday were the sure-fire hit that BlackBerry needs to get back into the game.

While New York Times reviewer David Pogue gushed that BlackBerry's new Z10 model is "lovely, fast and efficient, bristling with fresh, useful ideas," other reviewers were more tentative in their appraisals.

"The problem with the Z10 is that it doesn't necessarily do anything better than any of its competition," said Joshua Topolsky of technology news website the Verge. "No one could argue that there's a 'killer app' here. Something that makes you want or need this phone because it can do what no other phone can do. That's not the case."

Such lukewarm reviews - combined with disappointment around a later-than-expected and still unspecified date for the U.S. sales debut - spooked investors and prompted analysts to cut their price targets and forecasts.

BlackBerry, which is making a big push to win back the all-important U.S. market with a Super Bowl ad this weekend, said the new Z10 touch-screen device would not go on sale in the United States until sometime in mid-March, saying U.S. carriers need more time to test the model.

"The shine from the Super Bowl ad will be a fading memory by the time U.S. customers can buy in March," said TD Securities analyst Scott Penner, who has a "hold" rating on the stock.

Samsung Electronics Co may also steal some of BlackBerry's thunder as buzz around its Galaxy IV device heats up before the Z10 hits U.S. store shelves, Penner pointed out.

Making matters worse for BlackBerry, it has been not been very specific about how soon it will be before many of its most loyal fans across the globe can get their hands on the Q10 - its new qwerty keyboard model. The company has only said that it aims to release this version of the smartphone in April.

"While later-than-expected availability of the Z10 and Q10 devices shouldn't impact the longer-term potential success of the BB10 platform, we believe it does mitigate one of the near-term catalysts for the stock," said Paradigm Capital analyst Gabriel Leung, who trimmed his price target on the stock to $16 from $19.50.

RIM shares were down 5.2 percent at $13.05 at 12:15 EST (1715 GMT) Thursday on the Nasdaq, while its Toronto-listed shares were down 5.8 percent at C$13.06.

HIGH-END TARGET MARKETS

Initially at least, the BlackBerry 10 is aimed squarely at the North American and European markets, where consumers and businesses alike are eager to snap up high-end devices.

In countries like India - the world's second-largest mobile phone market - the premium cost of the new Z10 handset will restrict sales. Even so, the new device, which sources said will likely enter the key Indian market in mid-February, could help the Canadian company compete with premium rivals such as Apple Inc there.

"The Z10 launched yesterday is obviously a high-end product and India is not a market at that price point," said Anshul Gupta, industry analyst at Gartner, a technology advisory firm.

BlackBerry is the third-largest smartphone player in India after Samsung and Nokia, due mainly to its low-cost handsets that allow young people to communicate for free on its BlackBerry Messaging Service.

RIM launched its first BlackBerry more than a decade ago, as a way for busy executives to stay in touch with both clients and their offices.

BlackBerry quickly cornered the market for secure corporate and government emails, but its star has faded in recent years as competition heated up and RIM failed to keep pace.

The BlackBerry is now an also-ran in the race for market share, with a 3.4 percent global showing in the fourth quarter, down from some 20 percent three years ago.

RIM's new smartphones are considered a make-or-break attempt to save the company and claw back market share that it has lost to the likes of Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy devices.

"BlackBerry has demonstrated truly unique software innovation within BB10," wrote Raymond James analyst Steven Li in a note to clients. "However, convincing the many BlackBerry users who have abandoned the platform for iOS and Android over the last few years to return will be a difficult challenge as Microsoft and Nokia can surely attest to."

(Editing by Frank McGurty; and Peter Galloway)

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