ATandT and Software
AT&T However, the Torch 9800 has another Achilles Heel, and that's exclusive carrier AT&T. During the smartphone's Aug. 3 unveiling, AT&T executive Ralph de la Vega told the audience that his company and RIM had worked closely together to develop the Torch. Indeed, the user interface has been "skinned" with carrier-specific apps such as AT&T AppCenter, AT&T Maps, and AT&T Navigator. BlackBerry Maps is oddly missing from the smartphone's app lineup, but it may have been a casualty of the AT&T deal.To AT&T's credit, after I Tweeted about the poor service ("If I duct-tape my new BlackBerry to my office window, it might-might-hold more than one bar of signal"), a company representative emailed me within an hour seeking to help. They couldn't really offer a solution, however. Your own mileage may vary, of course, depending on where you live and work. But by restraining itself to a single carrier, RIM may have alienated a portion of its potential audience for the Torch. Software The Torch 9800 comes with RIM's much-touted operating system revamp, BlackBerry 6. In designing the OS, RIM clearly tried to walk a tightrope: not wanting to alienate its core constituency, the company preserved much of the "traditional" BlackBerry user interface. If you're a longtime BlackBerry user, the home page will be instantly familiar, as will the majority of the icons. BlackBerry 6 continues RIM's fine tradition of enterprise-caliber communications. The Notification Bar, easily accessible via the top of the home screen, displays the user's most recent e-mails, phone calls and calendar updates. Integration with an enterprise's BlackBerry Server is a snap. As a workday device, RIM continues many of the traditions that made it a stalwart among businesspeople. But RIM also wants to rope in the consumer market, as well. To that end, BlackBerry 6 heavily emphasizes the smartphone's multimedia capabilities, with streamlined access to YouTube, social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, music, videos, and the Web. These features are well-integrated into BlackBerry; but as previously mentioned, users interested in a smartphone for multimedia playback will likely gravitate towards the iPhone or an Android offering, if only because those devices tend to offer a larger, higher-resolution screen. Although the camera itself is decidedly last-generation, RIM's also markedly improved its photo software. Your images can be organized by event or date, viewed as a slideshow, or shared easily with social networks. Given that ease-of-use, it's a pity that RIM didn't install the Torch with a higher-megapixel lens. RIM is also promoting its new Universal Search application, which hunts through both your search phone and the larger Web. Similar features are becoming standard-issue on a number of smartphone platforms, and RIM's version seems just as effective as the rest. If RIM wants to make a solid run at the consumer market, though, it'll need to augment its App World with far more mobile applications. During the company's Aug. 3 presentation, executives suggested that the company had not only worked to make its marketplace simpler and more intuitive-through features such as the ability to discover new apps via Universal Research-but more profitable for developers. Those developers already working with the BlackBerry platform will be relieved to find the apps they developed for BlackBerry 5 are compatible with BlackBerry 6. They'll also have the ability to graft ads into applications, which seems to be RIM's way of challenging Apple's iAd platform for iOS4. These shiny features help breathe some life into the traditional BlackBerry interface. However, the touch-screen itself could use some tweaks. At moments it seems too sensitive, with programs accidentally activating at the slightest touch; at other points, I had to dig my thumb into the screen in order to make something happen. The virtual keyboard could also prove cramped for users with larger fingers-with less space between the keys than the iOS4 or Android interface, I found myself frequently mistyping words.
The problem here is twofold: some companies and consumers curious about the Torch may not be particularly interested in signing up for two years' worth of AT&T. As I walked around New York City, testing the Torch's connectivity in a variety of situations, AT&T's network problems seemed particularly acute: 3G coverage frequently died indoors; downloading a 3MB app because a 10-minute wait; at one point, the AT&T Maps application kept telling me I was floating in the middle of the Hudson River, when in fact I was standing inside a lobby on the Upper West Side. (For the latter example, it was impossible to determine whether the maps' habitual inaccuracy was a consequence of location-based service (LBS) or GPS.)