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BlackBerry Torch Keeps RIM in the Smartphone Game

Right now, the battle for smartphone dominance rages between three players: Apple, RIM and the unorganized mess of Android licensees. Nokia and Microsoft, at least for the moment, are in the fight in name only, though both are working to get back into the mix. Apple appeared to be unstoppable until the release of the iPhone 4, which drew a lot of criticism and attention due to reception issues, and how Apple addressed those problems. RIM’s potential last chance to save itself came this week in the form of the new BlackBerry Torch.

Let’s see how the Torch stacks up against the iPhone 4 and Android’s finest.

BlackBerry Torch vs. iPhone 4

Much like the new iPhone builds on the strengths of earlier versions, this new BlackBerry isn’t trying to be anything but a better BlackBerry phone. The Torch isn’t like so many of the phones that have been coming out from a variety of vendors (including RIM with the Storm) that attempt to clone the iPhone. I think that is a good thing, because the BlackBerry has many advantages over the other phones.

BlackBerry phones, when they stay true to the BlackBerry core benefits, tend to excel at battery life, business functions and e-mail. Unfortunately, they have typically sucked where the iPhone has been most competent, including: Web browsing, apps, and multimedia. The Torch closes the gap with regard to the latter, and appears to retain its advantages on the former, which is good for RIM users. Apple should, at least with regard to unique personal applications, continue with a significant lead for some time.

It is kind of amazing how many people I know who carry BlackBerry phones and iPhones at the same time; the first to deal with business functions and e-mail, and the second for fun and personal calls. Part of the reason to have two phones for many of these folks is that their business calls need to be logged (financial analysts, attorneys, etc.) and they would like their personal calls to stay, well, personal. But they do struggle with having to work with two very different tools for similar things and I think many would prefer to have one type of phone, even if they still had to use two, to do both.

Because companies are already used to paying for BlackBerry phones, going towards RIM wouldn’t require an executive to sign off on the move and so should be easier to get on the company dime than an iPhone or Android phone. The Torch and its successors will be going after that opportunity. It will likely be some time before we know if this version is good enough, but there is no denying the opportunity.

Initially, this is an AT&T-only phone, so if that is the problem – and it is for many iPhone users – an alternative carrier isn’t yet an advantage with this phone.

While the Torch won’t appeal to loyal iPhone users, it could win back those who moved from a BlackBerry to an iPhone and regretted the move. It also appears vastly more capable of satisfying existing BlackBerry users who are on AT&T, and provides a vastly stronger alternative to both Android and Apple than ever before.

BlackBerry Torch vs. Android

The big problem with Android is that there are way too many choices, which makes the selection of the right phone more difficult. The leading phones appear to be the HTC Evo 4G from Sprint, the new Motorola Droid X from Verizon, and the Samsung Captivate on AT&T, but sustaining that argument would be painful, given the mass of choices for this platform and how many versions of Android, from 1.6 to 2.2, layered with user interface customizations, that are out there.

Against the complexity of Android choices, both the new Torch and the iPhone are a breath of fresh air, and may showcase the problems with too many choices, which can often trump those with too few. Still, Android, at least for now, retains one big advantage, and that is carrier choice. Android is also number two in terms of application store depth, and has the first 4G phones in the market, but coverage is spotty at best, and battery life in 4G mode has proven to be unacceptably short (three to four hours).

Here, the Torch’s biggest exposure is the lack of carrier choice, so you get a conflict of too much choice against too little. Given that RIM is a multi-carrier company, generally I expect this shortcoming to be addressed in a few weeks, and not become a sustaining disadvantage.

Android also has keyboard phones both that drop from the bottom and side, but they have largely relied on partners HTC, or application providers like Touchdown (which isn’t bad) to complete their e-mail, calendar and contact solutions. On the other hand, to really leverage RIM’s advantages in this space, you need a RIM server, and most don’t have that.

So RIM’s big advantage over Android remains simplicity of choice, consistency in product, and a consistently good experience, which a multi-hardware vendor like Google or Microsoft will have difficulty matching. In a weird way, Android provides the best iPhone and RIM clones, but hasn’t yet really defined itself outside of the other two players yet, except as the platform of choices, a title it wears perhaps too well.

Staying the Course

The Torch is a return to RIM’s roots, and a nice advancement on what has come before. Much like Apple tends to be successful by improving on its own model and has stumbled when copying others, so has RIM in the past. The Torch represents what may be a very Apple-like strategy of being true to RIM’s origins. People aren’t all the same, and considering RIM has a higher market share than Apple does right now, that could work out well for them.

Compared to Apple and RIM, Google is kind of an uncontrolled mess, but does represent a level of choice that neither of the other firms can match, and that remains a huge risk particularly given the AT&T problems.

In short, the Torch doesn’t win any wars. It just assures that RIM remains in the fight, and will likely win a number of battles.

For more on the Torch check out BlackBerry Torch: Everything You Need to Know.

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