By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm
“The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success.” Irving Berlin supposedly said that, and the quote was on my mind this morning as I attended RIM’s BlackBerry Torch launch in New York.
When Palm and Microsoft were faced with the challenge of fast-forwarding into the iPhone era, they had a perverse advantage: Their current products were so obviously part of smartphones’ past that it would have been riskier to stick with them than to start fresh. Hence Palm’s WebOS (a technical success even though it hasn’t yet shipped in a successful product) and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 (which, whatever it turns out to be, is anything but a Windows Mobile retread).
For RIM, the challenge is indeed tougher. BlackBerry phones are still selling well; their traditional strengths, such as serious e-mail and well-done physical keyboards remain strengths; they’re part of how the world does business. And yet it’s clear that BlackBerry faces a potentially existential threat from iPhone and Android, both of which are slickier, sexier, Webbier, and more modern than any RIM device to date.
How to respond? At this morning’s press conference, RIM executives kept coming back to the mantra “fresh but familiar.” The Torch (which debuts on AT&T on August 12th for $199.99 on contract) is the first phone with the company’s BlackBerry OS 6, and the form factor–big touchscreen and slideout keyboard–is new. But its specs don’t put it in the superphone class: The 3.2″, 480-by-360 screen doesn’t match high-profile competitors like the iPhone 4o 4 or Droid X in terms of either real estate or pixels, the 624-MHz CPU is adequate rather than blazing, and the camera’s five megapixels of resolution is on the low side. (Although megapixels aren’t everything: The iPhone 4’s camera has the same resolution, and is one of the best phone cameras to date.)
With the Torch, the “familiar” part of “fresh but familiar” is very familiar. The hardware styling is totally BlackBerryesque: It looks like a Storm 2 that’s gained a sliding BlackBerry keyboard. (Or, if you’d perfect, a bit like a giant Palm Pre that lacks the Pre’s gracefully curved case.) OS 6 has scads of new features, RIM’s first up-to-date Webkit browser, a neat universal search engine, and new touch gestures such as the ability to select multiple items by tapping with two fingers. RIM didn’t start over, though: The look and feel aren’t a departure, and the basics of BlackBerry input–red and green phone buttons, a menu button, a back button, and a tiny touchpad–are all there.
Overall, the phone feels like the result of an array of decisions made to keep current BlackBerry owners comfortable. I suspect that RIM is also working on a BlackBerry superphone–a more potent, forward-looking device that may or may not have a physical keyboard–but this isn’t it.
After this morning’s formal presentation–which was dedicated almost as much to the AT&T and RIM partnership as to the phone itself–I got a few minutes’ worth of hands-on time with a Torch. Which is no way to render a final verdict on a new gadget, but I did form some initial impressions:
More thoughts soon–I hope to get my hands on a Torch for review. You have any impressions in the meantime?