Fresh and familiar won’t be enough for new BlackBerry Torch

Aug 3, 2010
Finance

We’ve been down this road before with Research in Motion (RIMM) and a new touchscreen phone. But until we hold the new BlackBerry Torch and get a sense of how easy and intuitive it is to navigate, it is unclear whether it will light a fire under RIM’s distraught user base or lead to tsunami […]

We’ve been down this road before with Research in Motion (RIMM) and a new touchscreen phone. But until we hold the new BlackBerry Torch and get a sense of how easy and intuitive it is to navigate, it is unclear whether it will light a fire under RIM’s distraught user base or lead to tsunami of bad press, like the universally despised BlackBerry Storm.

Research in Motion’s newest phone, the BlackBerry Torch 9800, was introduced Tuesday and will go on sale Thursday Aug. 12. It’s exclusive to AT&T (T) and sells for $199 after a two-year contract. The Torch features a new operating system, dubbed BlackBerry 6, and combines a 3.2-inch touch screen with a slide-out qwerty keyboard underneath. It will have a 5-megapixel camera, the same as the iPhone 4, but only shoots VGA video, not the 720p high-def found on the newest iPhone and hot Android products like Sprint’s (S) HTC Evo. There is no front-facing camera on the BlackBerry Torch either, a key selling point for the consumer-friendly iPhone 4 and Evo.

But what the phone lacks in state-of-the-art video capabilities it plans to make up in function that is “fresh but familiar” to BlackBerry users, said Don Lindsay, a former Apple (AAPL) executive who is now RIM’s vice president of user experience. That means the BlackBerry Torch should feel familiar if you use a BlackBerry, but also allow users to easily experiment with new features.

Lindsay said during the Tuesday press conference that the touch screen will encourage such exploration — and he’d better be right. The first BlackBerry touch product was the Storm, a product so disappointing that one suspects the carrier — Verizon Wireless (VZ) — wanted nothing to do with this new version.

The Storm had two big problems:

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1. It’s ‘SureTouch’ touch-screen was awful. Users had to press the screen firmly to tap out words or open the web browser. When typing, that made the experience similar to using a qwerty keyboard with the distinct disadvantage of not being able to feel an actual button. The BlackBerry Torch does not have this type of touch-screen, thankfully, and instead offers a ‘capacitive’ screen similar to current to touch-screen models.

2. The BlackBerry software was too familiar. Indeed, it was no different than the current BlackBerry software and not designed specifically for a touch-screen experience. If you liked the BlackBerry, you understood how to operate the phone — a good thing — but the navigation was so cumbersome for BlackBerry newbies and veterans that the phone was returned in droves.

It was a “fresh but familiar” effort for its time (a whopping two years ago) that bombed. Now, what did RIM learn?

Well, instead of taking a page from Apple’s playbook, the Torch appears to be more Android than iPhone. It will feature a notifications tool that sounds just like the notification bar that runs along the top of Android-based phones. Lindsay said users can tap on this notification preview without leaving the redesigned home screen to see if the notification is important or not.

Another Android-like tool, pioneered by Motorola (MOT), is a unified social media feed. Motorola calls this the MotoBlur software and it first started appearing on Android phones in 2009. Similar social media features have since been introduced on HTC (2498.TW) and Samsung (005930.KS) phones. These unified social media features — which integrate Facebook status updates, a Twitter feed and other social sites into a single display — appeal to everyone, not just the teen and 20-something set.

Other features of the BlackBerry Torch and BlackBerry 6 software include a universal search tool (for music, contacts and other content stored on the phone) and a universal inbox for messages. These are not ground-breaking features, as any iPhone or Android owner will point out. A nice addition, however, is the ability to search BlackBerry’s App World from this search tool, a technique that might help boost traffic and sales for BlackBerry-based apps.

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Several existing BlackBerry phones can be upgraded to BlackBerry 6, including the Bold 9700, the Bold 9650 and the Pearl 3G. Future models of the phone are expected to also include the new software, but RIM did not mention when those phones, or what carriers will offer them, will be available. It’s safe to assume the Torch will not be the only new BlackBerry introduced before the key holiday sales season.

It’s no secret that BlackBerry needs a hit with the Torch. Fans of the device are clamoring for something new and better and it’s a good bet that many will try out this new device. On the other hand, RIM has been losing customers at an alarming rate, as its market share has slipped drastically this year, falling to 41 percent from 55 percent, according to first-quarter data.

Will the Torch turn the tide? RIM is not breaking new ground with the BlackBerry Torch 9800. It looks and smells like a BlackBerry with a hint of Android thrown in. It is not innovative and even lacks features — a front-facing camera, for example — that could drive more consumer adoption.

But unless it gets a chorus of bad reviews, it should stem the losses for BlackBerry by mollifying existing customers. It is doubtful, however, that the BlackBerry Torch will draw new users.

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Eric Benderoff

Eric Benderoff is the principal of BendableMedia.com, an editorial services firm, and a founding member of the Appolicious content strategy team. His personal technology column for the Chicago Tribune has appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide. He is a regular guest on Chicago's WGN Radio and is a frequent commentator about consumer technology on national TV news programs.

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