A Brief Hands-on With The BlackBerry Torch

Research In Motion has just unveiled a new BlackBerry aimed at wooing consumers away from Apple’s iPhone and other rivals, but analysts said the handset won’t blow away the competition.

Research In Motion unveiled the BlackBerry Torch phone on Tuesday. It has both a touchscreen and slide-out keyboard. Photo: Matt Buchanan/Gizmodo

Research In Motion has just unveiled a new BlackBerry aimed at wooing consumers away from Apple’s iPhone and other rivals, but analysts said the handset won’t blow away the competition.

Even though the main features of the BlackBerry Torch, including a touchscreen and slideout keyboard, were well-known within the industry, investors registered their disappointment, driving RIM’s Toronto-listed shares down 4 percent.

The Torch will go on sale in the United States on August 12 for $199.99 with a two-year contract – about the same price as an Apple’s iPhone. The new BlackBerry uses a revamped operating system and has a faster and easier-to-use Web browser.

Underscoring RIM’s intention to compete head to head with the iPhone, the Waterloo, Ontario-based company will launch the phone in the United States with AT&T Inc, the same carrier that has exclusive U.S. rights to the iPhone.

Analysts at Tuesday’s launch event in New York said the BlackBerry Torch does not represent a major advance but that its consumer-friendly features were enough to help RIM to catch up to rivals.

The BlackBerry Torch will go on sale in the US on August 12th for $199.99 with a two-year contract with AT&T. Photo: Matt Buchanan/Gizmodo

“RIM is playing catch-up. This is clearly the upgrade for BlackBerry users, but otherwise not a lot here is super exciting,” Altimeter analyst Michael Gartenberg said.

The Torch does not represent a “leap forward”, but will help RIM compete with rivals such as iPhone and Google Inc’s Android software, used in phones from several vendors including Motorola Inc, said NPD analyst Ross Rubin.

“This gets the experience competitive again — if they can do that with the efficiency and stability that RIM is known for, then it’s a positive,” Rubin said.

AT&T described the device as the best BlackBerry ever but declined to say how much advertising the company will spend on the phone or how it would compare to the amount of money it spends on iPhone ads. “It will be as big a campaign as you’ve seen in some time,” Chief Marketing Officer David Christopher told Reuters.

BlackBerry’s nearly air-tight encryption has come under scrutiny in several overseas markets recently. The United Arab Emirates threatened on Sunday to ban some BlackBerry services unless RIM gives it access to encrypted messages. India’s Economic Times reported that RIM will allow Indian security authorities to monitor BlackBerry services.

Underscoring RIM's intention to compete with the iPhone, the Waterloo will launch the phone in the United States with AT&T Inc, the same carrier that has exclusive U.S. rights to the iPhone. Photo: Matt Buchanan/Gizmodo

RIM Chief Technology Officer David Yach declined to comment on discussions with specific governments. “I believe they’ll have trouble pulling the trigger to shut down BlackBerry,” Yach said. “Most governments in the world rely on BlackBerry.”

While the BlackBerry has long been the gold standard for corporate and government customers because of its speedy, secure email service, critics said it needs a big overhaul to expand its popularity beyond business customers.

One of the new features RIM touted is the ability to search any application, media content or contact by typing a word on in Torch’s “universal search” function.

BlackBerry Torch users can type messages on the screen or a slide-out keyboard. It comes with a 5-megapixel camera with a flash and a built-in GPS for location-based applications.

BlackBerry Torch users can type messages on the screen or a slide-out keyboard. It comes with a 5-megapixel camera with a flash and a built-in GPS for location-based applications. Photo: Matt Buchanan/Gizmodo

The new BlackBerry 6 operating system also offers an inbox where users can access updates from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in the same place as their emails.

The August launch was earlier than some analysts expected. “I’m glad to see they got it out sooner rather than later,” said Nick Agostino at Mackie Research Capital. RIM’s success will depend on positive industry reviews and adoption by developers of applications, he said.

The Torch’s success could also hinge on RIM’s ability to convince software developers to create applications for the device. Analysts say a big part of the iPhone’s appeal is the huge choice of applications that it has to offer.

“Developers want to go where the consumers are and consumers want to go where the developers are. RIM is going to have to tell a very compelling story to attract the first batch of developers,” he said. [ATT and BlackBerry via Gizmodo, Wired and ArsTechnica]

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