Reports of BlackBerry’s imminent demise are looking a little premature today with the announcement by RIM of a formidable quintet of new handsets, all of which will run BlackBerry 7, an updated version of the company’s smartphone OS.
Two of the new smartphones, the well-trailed Bold 9900/9930 and Torch 9810, feature QWERTY keyboards in the style of established BlackBerry devices, but with an upgraded specification list including a 1.2GHz ARM-designed processor, 768MB RAM (plus 8GB of eMMC), 720p HD video recording and a 5 megapixel camera.
Given that these Smartphones have been known about for some time, more attention will focus on the Torch 9850/9860, which looks like a renewed attempt to take on mainstream smartphones running Android, iOS or Windows Phones, all of which favour screen-based interaction.
Running on top of the same hardware as the other new models, the Torch 9850/9860 ditches the traditional BlackBerry focus on the QWERTY in favour of a single 3.7 inch transmissive TFT LCD touch screen display with a high pixel density for claimed clarity.
The performance will be an important part of this model’s sales pitch, coming with ‘Liquid Graphics’ technology to accelerate the interface, backed up by augmented reality, a digital compass and voice control of the OS, plus the benefits of BlackBerry 7, said to make the whole system snappier.
All models include support for Near Field Communications (NFC), a short-range radio technology designed to allow the transparent exchange of information between devices within range. That's an interesting addition although very much for future use.
As compelling as the new smartphones look, a few issues remain, starting with the usual one of cost and application availability.
As well as being expensive devices costing between £400 and £500 to buy outright, the BlackBerry’s hold on the developer community has weakened. Once impressive handsets were key; now the applications are what matters more and BlackBerry has fewer of them than rivals.
A second issue is whether consumers and businesses will want to buy a device running the final version of the BlackBerry 7 OS when a new one, QNX (pronounced as in ‘Unix’), will be available on its smartphones from 2012.
That operating system already runs on the Playbook tablet device but it is still in its early stage as a smartphone OS. RIM’s job will be to convince application-makers to support it sufficiently to take on the big three. In a crowded market, that will depend on customer demand as much as big launches and expensive smartphones.