By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 2:20 pm
It’s tempting to interpret every move AT&T makes in terms of its relationship with Apple, its status as the exclusive iPhone carrier in the US, and the implications of that exclusivity ending, as it will someday. It’s also dangerous to think that way, because the tea leaves are all too hard to read. Still, one fascinating sidelight of this morning’s BlackBerry Torch launch was the degree to which it was a lovefest between RIM and AT&T.
The first person on stage at this BlackBerry unveiling–the one who got to brandish a Torch in public for the first time–wasn’t a RIM honcho. It was AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph De La Vega. And RIM and AT&T executives handed off between each other for the entire presentation, spending nearly as much time praising each other as they did bragging about the new handset.
At times, it almost seemed as if the phone itself was the sidelight: It was shown off entirely through slides and videos, not hands-on walkthroughs. (On the plus side, we attendees all got the chance to try the Torch for ourselves after the formal proceedings had concluded.)
The whole thing was strikingly different from any recent Apple event–at those, AT&T gets a respectful nod if it’s lucky, and is left vulnerable to snickers of derision if it isn’t. At this one, it was presented as the Torch’s coauthor. The Torch wasn’t presented as a hunk of RIM hardware: It was positioned as an experience that consists of RIM’s hardware and software and service and AT&T’s network–and the way they all work together.
If the atmosphere reminded me of anything, it was the vibes that surround Verizon Wireless’s Droid line of Android phones. Every major US carrier has multiple Android models, but Verizon has done a good job of setting itself up as the carrier you think of when you think of Android. It’s had the most cool models; it’s promoted them the most aggressively; it’s an Android prime mover rather than a mere reseller. The name “Droid” probably hasn’t hurt, either.
Nobody’s ever going to give AT&T that kind of credit for the iPhone. Even though you can make the case that it deserves some of it: The story goes that AT&T got the phone in part because it was willing to give Apple the freedom to build exactly the phone that it wanted, and Verizon wasn’t.
As AT&T and RIM people kept telling us this morning, the companies have had a close relationship for as long as there have been BlackBerries, and many major new models have debuted on AT&T. (Given that today’s AT&T incorporates so many different companies, I’m not clear on whether it’s AT&T or Cellular One/Cingular or some other entity that was there for RIM at the beginning, but you get the idea.) There’s nothing new about AT&T getting first dibs on a new BlackBerry, nor, presumably, about it having some say in the details.
Even so, the linkage displayed this morning and the extent to which the Torch was pitched as an AT&T product as much as a RIM one felt new. Does AT&T want America to think of it as the BlackBerry carrier, in the same way that Verizon is the Android one? I’m sure if wouldn’t object to people having that perception. Is it prepping itself for the day when it’s not the only US carrier that has the iPhone? Like I say, it’s risky to make any assumptions. Seems like it would be a logical strategy to me, though…