BlackBerry Torch Might Be Good News

Wayne Rash

Research in Motion announced its new touch-screen slider device to the world today to mostly mixed reviews. The device is important if only because RIM needs a way to stay relevant in this day of iPhones and Droids. But it's equally important that this is, unapologetically, a BlackBerry.

RIM has attempted to include the best of both worlds in the Torch. The device has a capacitance touch screen as well as a physical keyboard that is revealed by sliding the screen upward. By including what is probably a much more usable touch-screen experience than previous models with a physical keyboard, RIM makes it possible for BlackBerry users to use a touch screen when that's most appropriate, and to have access to a keyboard for things like typing in text.

The inclusion of a physical keyboard could be a very distinct advantage for RIM. The BlackBerry is, after all, primarily a device for handling e-mail despite all of the other applications it contains. It's been doing the wireless e-mail task longer than anyone else, and over the last decade or so it's developed a reliable, secure and highly usable e-mail niche. It's hard to downplay that, despite the iPhones and Android devices that are descending on the enterprise. E-mail remains the single most important application to business, and that's the audience that RIM serves first.

But of course, there's more to life than work, and with its new version 6 of the BlackBerry OS, the company is providing a new range of capabilities for consumers. These items include integrated social networking, a better Web browser, a better media player and a new user interface that's supposed to be nicer.

Note that I didn't say it's a better OS than the iPhone or Android devices. It's different. The BlackBerry is designed to fill a different place in its user's experience, so it's not really aimed at the same audience. This explains the number of people out there who have both a BlackBerry and some other device such as an iPhone 4. The BlackBerry is, in the words of one executive I know, 'My workhorse.' But the same executive also has a Droid X that she can use for fun.

The question, of course, is whether the new BlackBerry Torch will draw enough new users to help RIM maintain its market share. Right now, that's hard to know for sure, since it was released for AT&T, with its new expensive data plans, its coverage problems, and its iPhone 4. The success of the Torch will probably depend on whether RIM limits the exclusivity to a fairly short time, and allows T-Mobile to get a similar GSM unit, and Verizon Wireless and Sprint to have CDMA versions.

But RIM has never been big on exclusivity, so it's likely that other versions of the Torch will show up during the course of the year. This is one advantage that RIM has over other device makers-you're not stuck with one carrier to have one.

All of this is unlikely to put much of a damper on iPhone or Android sales, but it might help RIM, especially in the enterprise. Right now, RIM probably needs to hang on to its place in business pretty badly, so if the Torch is good enough, then it'll help.

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