Categories: Carriers, Devices, Featured, News, OS

RIM unveils Torch, latest OS

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Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) upped its game today unveiling its latest smart phone, dubbed the BlackBerry Torch and available initially exclusively in the United States through AT&T Mobility (T). The device sports the device makers latest BlackBerry 6 operating system highlighted by increased integration for touch screens and a new web browser, and could hint at AT&T Mobility’s new future.

Hardware wise, the Torch offers up a 3.2-inch capacitative touch screen, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and RIM’s optical trackpad. The screen size is similar to the company’s Storm model, but comes up short in real estate compared with the 3.5-inch screen on Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) iPhone and the 4+-inch screens on newer devices running Google Inc.’s (GOOG) Android OS. The device does include a 5-megapixel camera, which is the highest resolution in the BlackBerry lineup.

The Torch is powered by a 624 MHz processor with 512 megabytes of Flash memory, which while powerful when compared to RIM’s other devices, also comes up short against many of its competitors that are now sporting processor speeds up to 1 GHz.

The device also includes four gigabytes of embedded onboard storage as well as an included four GB microSD card. The device can support memory cards up to 32 GB.

The current model includes quad-band support for GSM/GPRS/EDGE, tri-band support for HSDPA in the 850/1900/2100 MHz bands and Wi-Fi support for 802.11b/g/n. There was no word on additional models that would support either T-Mobile USA Inc.’s 3G network in the 1700/2100 MHz band or a CDMA version.

AT&T Mobility said it would start offering the device on Aug. 12 through its direct retail and online channels as well as through third-party retailers Best Buy, Wal-Mart and RadioShack. Pricing for the Torch will be the now standard $200 after all rebates and a two-year contract and the device will require a data package of either $15 per month for 200 MB or $25 for two GB of data transmission.

The pricing will place the device in-line with the BlackBerry Bold 9700 at AT&T Mobility, which sports a smaller, non-touch screen and QWERTY keyboard. More importantly for the success of the device it also will be priced in-line with Apple’s latest iPhone 4 16 GB model, which is available exclusively through AT&T Mobility. The carrier noted that it has sold more than 13 million BlackBerry devices to date, though it recently said that it sold 3.2 million iPhones during its recent second quarter alone.

RIM can take some consolidation in the fact that it still maintains the largest market share of smart phones in the U.S. at more than 35%, but Apple’s iPhone and those powered by Android have been showing strong sales growth.

The device could also prove important for AT&T Mobility, which has become reliant on sales of the iPhone to boost its postpaid customer growth results, but is expected to lose its current exclusivity agreement to offer the device domestically over the next several months. Rumors have been rampant that Apple is readying a version of the device for AT&T Mobility’s rival Verizon Wireless, though most expect the next iteration of the iPhone will run on T-Mobile USA’s GSM-based network.

The carrier has recently increased the number of devices it offers that use the Android platform, including already offering the Motorola Inc. Backflip and plans to unveil additional devices this year. The carrier also offers a broad selection of smart phones from Palm Inc., Nokia Corp. and a number of devices running Microsoft Corp.’s Mobile OS.

“Fresh but familiar”

Speaking at the device’s introduction RIM’s co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said “BlackBerry users will find BlackBerry 6 fresh but familiar. We spent a lot of time on the details.”

RIM’s future place in the smart phone world could very well rest on this strategy. The BlackBerry maker had to decide whether to play up its strengths and stoke its base or take a more revolutionary step that might attract a legion of new users, but also turn off the loyalists.

As RIM described it, the new OS is “fresh, approachable and engaging.” Others might have stronger descriptions of their operating system of choice.

BlackBerry has a steady base of users that will appreciate the familiarity of the new operating system, but it deserves to be criticized for playing catch up with the likes of Apple, Google, and even Palm, a company with an OS very much on pause following its acquisition by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ).

The company badly needed a multimedia update for its OS and it finally came today, almost six months after it was formally introduced at Mobile World Congress. As expected the OS comes equipped with a new WebKit-based browser that renders full HTML sites with tabbed browsing access and pinch-to-zoom capability. There was no mention of support for Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash.

BlackBerry 6 comes with plenty of new messaging capabilities as well, including a set of social feeds that will provide integrated access to BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., MySpace Inc. and a variety of instant-messaging apps. The messaging app can also support group texts and picture messages for groups as large as 10. The company also integrated its messaging platform with AT&T Mobility’s new locations feature that allows users to search for nearby points of interest and enter their own location directly into a message to let others know where they are.

RIM CTO David Yach said the company “simplified app discovery” by pre-installing BlackBerry App World on the Torch and has also included carrier billing support in the new version. “One of the key objectives is to offer a seamless user experience and help developers make it easier to create apps,” he said, according to GigaOm. “By taking these abilities, we’ve created the ability for devs to build a custom business model.”

Finally, some might call it bloatware, but once the Torch is fired up for the first time, users will see pre-loaded icons for Bloomberg, ESPN, The Weather Channel, Slacker Radio, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the typical suite of AT&T’s apps that users can’t delete from their device. The device also comes with a pre-installed visual voicemail app and a dedicated YouTube app.

Analysts were generally positive on the new OS, noting the advanced feature set and ease of navigation.

“The OS 6.0 provides some very innovative features for users, with an engaging interface and creative home-screen applications,” noted Samir Sakpal, analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “The access to multiple home-screens, based on user preference is a unique feature of the OS 6.0, while providing users with features such as ready access to RSS feeds, simplified and comprehensive social networks usage and expanded messaging capabilities. The Universal Search feature is also a critical addition, providing ease of navigation to various applications on the device.”

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