A new BlackBerry called the Torch, with both a touchscreen and slide-out QWERTY keyboard, was unveiled Tuesday by Research In Motion, which hopes to stop the bleeding of customers migrating to the iPhone and phones using the Android operating system.
The phone, also known as the Torch 9800, will be available Aug. 12, and cost $199 with a two-year contract with AT&T, which will be the exclusive provider of the Torch.
The device will use RIM's new Operating System 6, which includes a badly needed re-do of the BlackBerry Web browser, which is painfully slow and frustrating to use. The new browser is called the Torch Mobile browser. It is based on WebKit, the same engine used by Apple and Google.
The Torch, noted NPD analyst Ross Rubin, looks "a bit like a high-end Palm Pre" with its touchscreen and slide-out keyboard. It has a 3.2-inch, 360-by-480 capacitive touch-screen display.
The phone, with Wi-Fi, has pinch-to-zoom on the touchscreen, something the iPhone and other devices already feature. It also has a 5-megapixel camera with flash and autofocus, as well as "environment" settings. The camera will name pictures by location.
A hallmark of the new operating system is universal search, RIM CEO Mike Lazardis said at a press conference. Universal search is something offered already on the iPhone, Android and Palm devices. It lets users search their devices by keyword to find anything on the device — in e-mail, contacts or music, for example — to that keyword.
The operating system "is cool," but there's not much there that "we haven't seen before elsewhere," said Michael Gartenberg, partner with Altimeter Group, a technology research and advisory firm.
RIM has been working to capture more of the consumer smart phone market, but seems to have lagged, when compared with its competitors. Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart disagrees.
"It's not that RIM has taken so long, it's that the pace of innovation in the industry has increased. ... Apple is on a yearly schedule for major updates, and Google seems to launch a new version of Android every few months," he said.
BlackBerrys are still considered by many to be the Cadillac of smart phones because of the phones' generally strong security features — just ask the United Arab Emirates, which banned it in recent days because it can't decrypt BlackBerry messages.
But the company's previous touchscreen models, the Storm and Storm 2, have not fared well, and it is rapidly becoming a touch-screen world for phones and other devices. Neither Storm has been as facile to use as the iPhone or other touch-screen devices.
"It looks like an outstanding product. It really closes the gap with Android and iPhone — probably more Android, because Apple really offers something unique," said Shaw Wu, Kaufman Bros. analyst. "But RIM really overhauled the user interface. I think they've regained their No.2 position in terms of technology."
According to a report Monday by the Nielsen Co., there are about 12 million potential BlackBerry deserters in the United States. More than half of BlackBerry owners say they will pick something other than a BlackBerry when they upgrade to their next phone. That something would likely be an iPhone, Android-based phone or one using another operating system like Windows Phone 7 — aka Windows Mobile. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
"RIM has 50 million active users, many of whom are fanatically devoted to the brand," said Greengart. "The Torch and OS 6 should make this group very, very happy.
"It should also help RIM’s margins, as there is finally a reason to buy from the high end of the line rather than the middle. There are three pain points RIM needed to address: Web browsing, user experience, and apps. RIM has fully caught up in Web browsing. The user experience straddles the line between keeping things familiar and providing additional functionality, which, again, ought to thrill current BlackBerry customers, but may not be enough to attract new users. On apps, the jury is still out — RIM has a lot of catching up to do."
BlackBerry App World, RIM's version of Apple's App Store for phone programs to add, will come pre-installed on the phone. Currently, users have had to download App World onto their devices. Billing for app purchases will also be different; instead of having to set up and use a PayPal account, apps purchases will be billed through AT&T, RIM said.
That's an improvement; another still needed will be more apps, which have been anemic when compared to competitors. Apple has more than 230,000 for the iPhone; there are 30,000 for Android phones. RIM had more than 6,000 as of last spring.
Without a contract, the Torch will cost $499.99. RIM says the Torch has 5.5 hours of talk time, 18 hours on standby, and can play music for 30 hours and video for six hours.
Reuters contibuted to this report.
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