Research In Motion used the Aug. 3 launch of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 to position itself as more consumer-centric: during a high-profile presentation in New York City, executive after executive touted the device's multimedia and social-networking capabilities-not to mention what the company hopes will be a mobile-applications storefront capable of holding its own against Apple's App Store and Google's Android Marketplace.
Although RIM made its name in the corporate sphere, its newfound consumer bent nonetheless seems a natural strategy, considering how rivals such as the Apple iPhone have been making inroads among the Canadian firm's traditional enterprise and SMB (small- to midsize-business) audiences.
"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."
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is RIM's first smartphone to feature a combination of slide-out physical keyboard and capacitive touch screen, hardware innovations that the company hopes will signify a clean break from previous designs which, while efficient, are seen as somewhat stogy by a subset of users. However, the form-factor also carries some risks: the Palm Pre-which boasted similar features-never managed to retain a substantial audience, and a handful of current and upcoming Android smartphones feature the sliding keyboard/touch-screen combination.
But starting this fall, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and its accompanying operating system, BlackBerry 6, will face competition from another longtime player also revamping its smartphone franchise: Microsoft, which will offer its upcoming Windows Phone 7 on a number of manufacturers' devices.
As with RIM, Microsoft's smartphone franchise has a certain hard core of business users-but faces eroding market share in the face of fierce competition from Google and Apple. Both RIM and Microsoft hope their respective smartphones' new, flashier interfaces and functions will appeal equally to those corporate types and consumers.
But both companies also face the same challenges. Neither managed to attract users to their mobile apps to the same degree as Apple or Google, although apps are increasingly seen as a vital part-perhaps the most vital part-of any smartphone's ecosystem.
RIM has a slight advantage here, however, in that applications developed for previous BlackBerry operating systems will apparently work with BlackBerry 6; Microsoft, on the other hand, did not bake compatibility with Windows Mobile apps into Windows Phone 7. Developers who want to play on Microsoft's new platform need to develop from scratch.
That lack of backwards compatibility, and focus on the consumer, are two elements that analysts see as capable of harming Windows Phone 7's chances with business users.
"The change will not endear Microsoft to its existing base of corporate users who will have to design and redeploy their apps if they are to utilize this new platform," Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates, wrote in a research note after Windows Phone 7's unveiling during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. "We don't think Microsoft can count on many enterprises making such a transition/upgrade, and most organizations will likely stay with older WinMo versions (especially those using ruggedized devices, e.g., Symbol, or those with apps that can't be easily transported)."
Microsoft hopes that features such as streamlined access to SharePoint and documents will be a major attractant for the enterprise.
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 will likely not face the same headwinds-for all of its innovations, both its hardware and software is strongly reminiscent of the RIM products used by businesses for years-but could nonetheless have trouble appealing to consumers.
"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."
Microsoft needs to release a Windows Phone 7 build of quality high enough to capture both business users and consumers, with an applications store capable of attracting developers and users in equal measure; RIM also needs a robust app storefront, and broader consumer adoption. Those strategies will almost certainly bring the two companies into increased conflict.