Is There Enough Flame in the BlackBerry Torch?

Earlier today, RIM introduced the BlackBerry Torch, the company’s first smartphone to ship with BlackBerry OS 6 and perhaps more importantly RIM’s attempt to remind the world that it’s still a big player in the smartphone market.

We think it’s interesting that RIM chose to name its newest BlackBerry the “Torch” because what the BlackBerry brand has really been lacking over the last few years is heat. That is, while the iPhone and Android (Android) devices have generated tons of buzz and taken turns at being the hottest tech item of the moment, the BlackBerry has remained relatively cold. It’s clear that RIM recognizes that the BlackBerry brand doesn’t have the cachet and appeal that it once did and its betting that its new OS and slate of new devices will help turn things around.

There’s a lot to like about BlackBerry OS 6.0 and the BlackBerry Torch in general. The new form factor stays consistent with what BlackBerry users already know, but offers a full touch screen with a slide out keyboard. We think that taking design cues from the Palm Pre is a good thing because the rest of the smartphone world has embraced touch with a vengeance and the SureType keyboards on the BlackBerry Storm simply didn’t cut it.

However, aside from physical features, we can’t help but be a little disappointed with the actual specs of the phone. Yes, it has a 5 megapixel camera, Wi-Fi support for 802.11n and more memory than previous devices, but the processor is still slow in comparison to the competition and the screen size and resolution seem downright trite by 2010 standards. Still, the BlackBerry has never been about being the flashiest, fastest, latest or greatest device. Ultimately, if the device and OS can remain snappy for users, the specs don’t matter.

Enough to Stop the Bleeding

Over the last few years, I’ve watched my group of friends slowly but surely transition from being BlackBerry obsessed to card-carrying iPhone or Android users. I went through the same transition myself, finally switching to an iPhone (iPhone) last year after nearly 5 years with the BlackBerry.

Why are users jumping ship? Because frankly, the BlackBerry hasn’t kept up. The e-mail and text experience might still be the best in the business, but more and more mobile usage is taking place in the browser, not the inbox. Fortunately, BlackBerry OS 6 includes a new WebKit-based web browser, a much-needed improvement.

Charles Golvin, a mobile analyst for Forrester Research, commented on the new device, “the Torch and OS6 put Research In Motion on firm competitive ground against Apple’s iPhone and the Android devices, with a touch screen plus the BlackBerry keyboard.”

In other words, this is a step in the right direction to keep current BlackBerry fans sated. However, existing users is only one part of the equation. While we doubt that even RIM actually believes that the latest OS is enough to win over Android or iPhone users, there is another arguably more important audience to tap: Non-smartphone users.

There are still millions upon millions of non-smartphone users and these users should be the ones that RIM targets. The biggest draw to a platform for consumers — aside from carrier — is largely becoming all about the number of available applications.

Hooking Developers is Key

BlackBerry has always had strong ties to enterprise and corporate developers — the reason that the device was adopted across so many companies is because of how nicely BES is able to integrate into existing mail and authentication systems. However, when it comes to consumer facing apps, BlackBerry has fallen well short of the competition.

Over the last year, RIM has improved its developer outreach, making it easier for developers to get started, making more iterations to the platform and making improvements to the BlackBerry App World. Perhaps more than OS 6 itself, the new developer announcements that RIM made at today’s event hold the most potential.

The developer platform has been updated with some much needed enhancements; payment, advertising and analytic options are more robust and finding and installing apps is now easier than before. These are important changes. But are they enough?

As Golvin opines, “The key question is whether RIM can convince developers to prioritize this new platform above the competition. RIM has a strong appeal for developers because of the size of their installed base. With a new platform that base is reset to zero so developers will apply different criteria to their decision on prioritizing BlackBerry vs iPhone, Android, etc. Having addressed their shortcomings in OS and UI, this is the huge challenge for RIM.””

Golvin touches on the double-edged sword of the new developer platform features: backward compatibility. Although older apps will run on BlackBerry 6, the newest apps built for BlackBerry 6 devices won’t run on older versions of the software. That means that to take advantage of the better advertising APIs and other niceties, developers will need to target newer devices.

For new developers coming in, that likely won’t be much of a problem. The harder part is going to be for existing BlackBerry developers. After all, if you have to refactor you applications for essentially a brand new audience, would it make more sense to move to a different platform like iOS or Android?

This problem is by no means unique to BlackBerry. Windows Phone 7 (Windows Phone 7) is going to face the exact same problems. Because it is a brand new starting point from Windows Mobile 6.5, apps have to be rewritten and the userbase is essentially being reset.

The biggest problem that many developers face is choosing what mobile platform to support — this is why it’s crucial that RIM continue to invest in developer relations and make its platform as attractive as possible.

We’re Just at the Beginning

We think that anyone that writes off BlackBerry as old news is being a bit naive — the market is much too young and RIM has a loyal userbase and lot of smart people working behind the scenes.

Still, we can’t help but feel like all this initial OS release and phone announcement does is catch RIM up to where the competition has been for the last two years. The needle hasn’t been moved further. For BlackBerry to really come back with early adopters, RIM needs to push out innovations and improvements with greater speed and agility than they have in the past.

Ultimately, we think that the BlackBerry Torch is a step in the right direction. BlackBerry loyalists, what do you think of the BlackBerry Torch? Let us know!

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Gabriel Catalano

agosto 2010
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