Why Blackberry’s Torch doesn’t hold a candle to the competition

Blackberry’s long-awaited new flagship 9800 – the ‘Torch’ – is now readied for release, and all told it doesn’t look particularly promising for RIM. In the super-competitive smartphone arena, Apple’s iPhone 4 and the slew of models on Google’s Android OS are blazing trails as innovative, media-rich mobiles that not only cover the bases of web, phone, email, music and video, but excel in the process. Judging by the previews currently doing the rounds on tech press websites the Torch just doesn’t cut it against the competitor models.

Sitting on the fence

I’m astonished that the Torch incorporates a sliding QWERTY keyboard as well as a touchscreen alternative. This just doesn’t make sense to me. I can fully understand a preference for a physical keyboard, particularly for the Blackberry ‘hardcore’ who justifiably see it as an essential feature, but surely the decision should have been made for one or the other. I can’t imagine a user swapping between the two in practice, once they’ve become used to their preference. One of the joys of owning a well-designed mobile handset is developing the muscle memory to use it almost automatically, as the functions become second nature over time. With its sitting-on-the-fence dual keyboards the Torch just couldn’t offer this.

Besides the botched functionality aspect, the double keyboard impacts on the Torch’s form factor considerably. Blackberry handsets, while never winning any design awards, have always have a pleasant enough appearance, but the slider element makes the Torch chunky and compromised. Also, RIM has traditionally steered clear of flash-in-the-pan phone designs by sticking to its core principle of usability, so the move to a slider – something that was very briefly impressive back in, say, 2005 – is very strange indeed.

Fails to impress

In addition to the dog’s breakfast of the two keyboards, the Torch’s screen fails to impress. Compared to the iPhone 4’s Retina Display and the Super AMOLED presentation found in the Samsung Galaxy S, the Torch’s dull screen is decidedly old school. The opportunity to use the Torch’s large screen as a great photo and video viewer has been well and truly missed.

And there you have it. Two major problems that essentially mean that the Blackberry Torch has lost the race before it has even started running. Whether the Torch proves to be a costly failure for RIM on a company-wide level remains to be seen, but it’s not altogether out of the question.

Choices

Blackberry has long relied on enterprise users as a captive market who would snap up their products for business purposes. Their competition was essentially non-existent in that area, and RIM quickly became the dominant force in that particular segment. No longer. Smartphones are by definition capable of a multitude of applications, and every single major player now accommodates the complex needs of the business user. There are choices now, and Blackberry doesn’t have the same hold over the market. While RIM has been developing the below-par 9800, Apple and Google have been busy creating the functionality and features needed to tempt Blackberry users over to their platforms. Microsoft, the past-master in the enterprise segment meanwhile has been ploughing R&D cash into its Windows Phone 7 OS, which is due to arrive before 2010 is out and provide yet another viable option for the business user.

Already surpassed technology

I’ve personally had a Blackberry Pearl for the last eighteen months, largely because of cost-preclusive iPhone tariffs and a nagging curiosity to try out a different operating system after years of Symbian drudgery on a succession of Nokias. While the Pearl provides a trouble-free phone and text platform, it falls laughably short of the web browsing and email experience of my iPod Touch. I like the almost retro charms of the Pearl, but that’s about it. It’s not a mobile to get excited about, or even feel anything particularly strongly for, positive or negative. I hear a lot about the benefits of Blackberry Messenger (BBM), but as every single one of my friends and colleagues has either an iPhone or an Android phone I’ve never actually had the opportunity to try it out.

Now the time has come to choose a new mobile, Blackberry simply isn’t on my radar. It’s a straight choice between the iPhone 4 and whatever new Android-based models spring up in the next month or so. Currently the Motorola Droid X and the Samsung Galaxy S seem to be the pick of the platform. With such fantastic hardware and operating systems available, Blackberry’s Torch just doesn’t come into the equation. Choosing the 9800 over the aforementioned handsets would be wilfully signing up to another eighteen months of already surpassed technology, and that’s not something I’m willing to do.

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