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BlackBerry Torch Drags RIM Into 21st Century: Rich Jaroslovsky

It’s become fashionable among the digerati to dismiss the BlackBerry as a remnant of yesterday’s technology and lump its maker, Research In Motion Ltd., with Microsoft and Nokia as wireless pioneers who squandered their early advantages and are now sinking toward irrelevance.

All of which raises the stakes for the BlackBerry Torch 9800, which goes on sale in the U.S. from AT&T Inc. on Aug. 12. The Torch, which will cost $199 on a two-year contract, represents RIM’s attempt to bring the classic BlackBerry concept into the 21st century’s second decade, and is the first device to run the BlackBerry 6 operating system.

By and large, it succeeds in its mission to provide BlackBerry users with a more modern experience, and may even appeal to some people who haven’t yet made the move from older, more limited devices -- what the industry calls “feature phones” -- to smartphones that are capable of browsing the Web and running applications.

At the same time, it falls well short of Apple Inc.’s iPhone and the many devices that run Google Inc.’s Android operating system, and provides no reason for users of any of those phones to contemplate switching.

There’s no mistaking the Torch for anything but a BlackBerry; it has that classic BlackBerry shape and, unfortunately, heft as well. It weighs about 5.7 ounces (161 grams), making it about 18 percent heavier than an iPhone 4.

Warming the Heart

Then again, it uses that extra weight for the thing that warms the heart of any true BlackBerry devotee: a physical keyboard, which slides out from behind the screen. Though I’ve grown used to on-screen typing on other smartphones, muscle memory quickly kicked in, and in no time at all I was back to thumbing away like it was 1999.

You don’t actually need to use the Torch’s physical keyboard; you can also summon a virtual one on the 3.2-inch color touch screen. But if you aren’t going to compose your messages on the real keyboard, what exactly is the point of having a BlackBerry?

I had some initial trouble setting up the Torch to work with Bloomberg’s corporate e-mail system; the phone twice froze while it was attempting to configure itself, requiring me to remove and reinstall the battery. The second time, however, finally took, and from then on, e-mail functioned smoothly. I found the ability to move from message to message by swiping the screen sideways to be particularly useful. You can also use familiar pinch-and-zoom gestures to resize text and images.

Extra Pressure

The bottom front of the Torch includes a track pad for navigation as well as a smooth panel with the phone’s four basic function buttons. While the layout is logical and easy to use, I found the buttons required somewhat more pressure to activate than I expected.

The interface provided by the new operating system -- which will also be available to users of BlackBerry’s Bold 9700 and 9650 and Pearl 3G models -- is both clean and intuitive. The home screen is well laid out, with a separate screen for frequently used applications; settings and options have been made simpler across the board.

Perhaps the biggest improvement is in surfing the Web, which can be a painful experience on older BlackBerry models. RIM has completely revamped the browser, which is now much faster and includes a passel of new features.

No Sex Appeal

In short, the Torch and BlackBerry 6 should appeal to many a dedicated BlackBerry user. But what about non-BlackBerry users? As a piece of hardware, the Torch has little of the sex appeal of the iPhone 4 or Motorola Inc.’s Droid X. RIM’s application store, called AppWorld, has only about 9,000 offerings, a small fraction of the number available for the iPhone or Android devices. And the BlackBerry’s media-playing capabilities remain basic, even primitive, when compared with some of its rivals.

RIM has a much stronger hand to play in the marketplace right now than companies like Microsoft Corp. and Nokia Oyj, which are seeing their competitive positions erode at an a alarming rate. While research group NPD said Aug. 4 that Android is now the No. 1 U.S. smartphone operating system, RIM remains in second place with 28 percent of the market, and the BlackBerry still commands a measure of devotion among many of its users that may be second only to the iPhone.

That isn’t a bad position to build on, and RIM is said to be working on new products that might help it do so. Still, the Torch has the feel of a product designed to maintain the universe of current fans, not one to expand it.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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