RIM's BlackBerry Smartphones Need a Lesson from Apple

The BlackBerry Torch may be RIM's best smartphone to date, but critics agree it's hardly the coolest phone around - which, if RIM wants to dazzle both consumers and enterprise users, it needs to figure out how to make.

With the Aug. 12 debut of BlackBerry Torch on the AT&T network, Research In Motion hopes to rekindle the ardor that American audiences once felt toward its super-secure, super-fast e-mailing smartphones - affections that have more recently been turned toward Apple's iPhone and the astounding number of high-end handsets running Google's Android operating system.

The Torch features a first-ever in BlackBerry design - a multitouch display plus a RIM keypad - and it will be the first to run RIM's "renovated" new OS, BlackBerry 6. And still, the phone maker may be setting itself up for disappointment, partly of its own doing. While Apple has slowly ingratiated the iPhone to enterprise users, RIM has likewise worked to gain users outside of its well-established enterprise base - which ultimately may prove the harder direction to move in.

"Despite its growing presence in the consumer market, its main claim to fame - and relevance - is as a provider of highly secure and reliable email service," Analyst Ken Hyers, with Technology Business Research (TBR), told eWEEK. "The device itself is almost secondary, and I expect that most buyers of the Torch, at least initially, will be corporate users upgrading from their existing BlackBerry handsets. This means that RIM, more than other handset manufacturers, can get away with products that are not as cutting edge, since the service is the thing, not the device."

Consumers, however, have little tolerance for a brand new device running short of cutting edge.

"They could have at least given the damn thing a better screen," Gizmodo's Matt Buchanan complained in an early review, echoing the (general) sentiment of a number of journalists who were given the device in advance of its launch. Engadget reviewer Josh Topolsky similarly offered: "It's tough to feel excited about the BlackBerry Torch and OS 6 after heavy testing."

The engineering-focused RIM, TBR's Hyers explained, needs to now put more emphasis on product design from an appearance standpoint.

"This is something that both Apple and others do very well, and is a real weakness for RIM," Hyers told eWEEK. "I do not think they are in danger of losing their relevance, because their email product is still unique and the industry gold standard, but they are definitely giving up sales opportunities by not focusing on product design like they should."

Analyst Neil Mawston, with Strategy Analytics, says the Torch is at least a step in the right direction for RIM. Its best BlackBerry to date, it'll help RIM to - if not attract new customers - stem the loss of current customers to Apple or Android, as well as help AT&T, as it faces the loss of its exclusive rights to the iPhone.

In a July 30 research note, Mawston noted that RIM posted the highest year-on-year growth of any of the top-five handset makers, but nonetheless described RIM as "sorely" needing a hit with BlackBerry 6.

"The Torch is a sizeable step forward for BlackBerry, but it is not an Android or iPhone killer," Mawston told eWEEK. "The Torch's design lacks the wow factor of the iPhone, while it has a smaller screen and slower processor than many of the Android superphones that are emerging such as the Samsung Galaxy S."

For an established player such as RIM, there's still a little time to get it right.

"The -Torch 1' is a good start," said Mawston, "but it's going to need to move fast and deliver an even better -Torch 2' in 2011 if it wants to maintain momentum."