When executives from Research In Motion took the stage in New York City on Aug. 3 to introduce the BlackBerry Torch 9800, the company's first sliding-keyboard smartphone with a capacitive touch screen, they emphasized all the things designed to make the device particularly appealing to consumers: the way its Universal Search could scan Websites such as YouTube, the unified social-networking feeds, the wireless syncing with the DRM-free music on a user's PC.
Don Lindsay, vice president of user experience at RIM, described the device's user interface as designed to appeal to "every customer new to the BlackBerry." Given the focus on features such as multimedia, as well as apps, one can assume that those customers are meant to be consumers.
That certainly seems a sound strategy. RIM's rivals, including the Apple iPhone and Google Android, have been making inroads among both the enterprise and SMBs (small and midsize businesses). It makes sense that RIM's counterattack would involve spreading beyond its traditional business-user base and into the consumer segment.
"In order to create a bulwark against incursions in their market from Apple and Google, RIM needs to expand its footprint," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, told eWEEK in an Aug. 3 interview. "RIM became the device of choice in the business market because they represented the cutting edge of that market five, six, seven years ago."
Now that the technology has evolved, King added, "Business smartphone users of every sort are thinking of their devices as multimedia devices, enabled to do everything from email to video conferencing to MP3 files. So it makes perfect sense for RIM to try and update with its own products."
The Torch features a sliding QWERTY keyboard alongside a capacitive touch-screen, an optical trackpad, and a 5-megapixel camera. At 5.68 ounces it feels solid but not heavy in the hand; with the keyboard extended, it measures 5.8 inches in length. BlackBerry 6, the company's new mobile operating system, includes features such as Universal Search, which lets users hunt for information both on the device and the larger Web, and the aforementioned, streamlined access to multimedia features.
The smartphone will be available starting Aug. 12, for $199 with a two-year contract from AT&T, the exclusive carrier in the U.S. Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T's Mobility and Consumer Markets, boasted during RIM's Aug. 3 presentation that the two companies had worked closely together to develop the Torch.
But even if the Torch allows RIM to hold the line with its traditional business audience, can it extend that beachhead into a full-on charge at the consumer market? History seems doubtful.
"I think, because of the success that Apple has had in appealing to both consumers and business users with the iPhone, the assumption is that new Apple products like the iPad are going to find their way to the business world," King said. "There's a long history of products that start on the consumer side of things that move into the business world. But I haven't seen a whole lot what you would call reverse migration."
Other analysts seem to agree about RIM's prospects in the consumer space.
"My sense is that iPhone is king, Android is a viable challenger, and I don't see much else," Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, told eWEEK in an Aug. 3 interview. "We're waiting for WebOS to show up and do something via HP, probably by holiday. RIM seems more adroit than Microsoft, but when you think about companies with a commercial bent trying to hop the barrier to consumers, they have issues."
But RIM evidently thinks it has a chance to buck the trend.