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Return of the Blackberry

Has the iPhone jumped the shark? Rival Blackberry re-emerges as a real contender.

2012 was the year the rot set in at Apple. The core of the problem was its flagship iPhone. (Let’s not even mention the iPad Mini.) After years of innovation, the 5’s splashiest feature was…a bigger screen that simply aped Android rivals. Its slim connector rendered current accessories redundant, while the Maps app was so woeful, it sent anyone looking for Berlin to Antarctica. Suddenly, carrying an iPhone no longer conveyed instant cachet but rather a helpless submission to the whims of Cupertino nerds, more conformism than effortless cool. This year looks to be even more bruising as Apple preps for a juicy battle with an old rival that’s finally fighting back: BlackBerry.

Sure, even the most dedicated keyboard apologist will admit that manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) lost its edge with a clunky operating system, unexciting handsets and a worldwide service outage that tainted BlackBerry’s rep for rugged reliability. But RIM has jettisoned its CEO and streamlined its workforce, reshaping the 29-year-old company into something more akin to a start-up. And now, RIM is launching new handsets and a reimagined OS.

Until recently, the company relied on an OS built a decade ago for two-way paging devices that strained to cope with data-heavy smartphones. Think of it like splicing a Skoda engine into a Ferrari. The answer was simple: Rebuild the entire OS, reengineering it for the future of mobile computing. Some of the tech tricks are useful, if unshowy—the QNX platform makes it faster and easier to update software, for example—but others may make Apple acolytes envious. Time Shift is a camera tweak that auto-detects people in a photo and lets you scroll before and after a shot to correct blinking or red eye; astonishingly, you can do it one face at a time. BlackBerry Balance is like cellphone schizophrenia. With one swipe, you can switch from a work to a personal setup, so those dealing with sensitive information, like lawyers, no longer need to juggle two handsets.

“Smartphones are an extension of you, a personal brand, and the problem is that Android and Apple are becoming almost indistinguishable—touchscreens with lots of apps. It means you’re now just part of a herd,” says Kyle McInnes of fan site Blackberrycool.com. “But BlackBerry 10 is speaking to a very particular type: It’s all about action, productivity, a tool for entrepreneurs.”

RIM’s shot at Apple might succeed, given the device’s resilience elsewhere in the world. In Indonesia, fans camp out overnight before the newest hand-set is released, and in Nigeria an entire movie, BlackBerry Babes, centered around women harassing their boyfriends to buy them the devices. And when a snapshot of a down-to-business Hillary Clinton became a viral meme, she wasn’t holding an iDevice. Power brokers, Hillary made clear, had never abandoned the BlackBerry. As Kevin Michaluk of Crackberry.com explains, “BlackBerry is for people who have shit to do and need to get it done. The iOS was really for people who didn’t have enough to do and were looking to kill time.”

Among BlackBerry’s loyalists are the fashion pack. Stylist and TV personality Joe Zee, who resisted the lure of Apple until recently, still hasn’t let go of the stalwart on which he’s written entire columns. “In the front row, everyone does work on a BlackBerry— until the show starts, and then they switch to an iPhone to take pictures.” (Time Shift is an answer to that.)

Finally, it seems that even for technology, the adage “Everything old is new again” could apply. Paul Birardi of Odin New York Menswear remembers being at a meeting with 13 or 14 people, “and I was the only person with a BlackBerry,” he says. “And someone said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re carrying vintage.’ ”