The BlackBerry Torch, launched last Thursday in the U.S., was seen as Research In Motion's major push to attract new customers and stop losing ground to competitors. While the BlackBerry remains popular in corporate culture, it's increasingly being overshadowed by the high-profile devices coming from Apple and the fleet of Android manufacturers. Most analyses of mobile phone market share show BlackBerry's slice of the pie steadily eroding as a result.
Unfortunately for RIM, the notion of the BlackBerry Torch reversing this trend may be a long shot -- and strange as it sounds, a lack of sexiness may be to blame.
BlackBerry Torch and the Sexy Factor
First, a little background: Back when buzz was first building about the BlackBerry Torch, I theorized that RIM's challenge was finding a way to make the phone sexy -- to give it that "X-factor" that Apple and Android devices possess. Think about it: While businesses love the BlackBerry, it's never had that exciting quality that makes it a hotly discussed object of desire. Sure, it's reliable and it's secure. And those are important assets. But they're also areas where the competition is steadily improving, and they alone aren't enough to make a phone a serious contender in today's mobile ecosystem.
The BlackBerry Torch and its accompanying new operating system needed to wow us, to make us start thinking about RIM as a headline rather than a footnote in the smartphone wars. The Torch may be a step up for satisfied BlackBerry users who are committed to the platform, but it isn't enough to win over new masses and gain widespread consumer appeal -- which is what RIM was really trying to do.
Early sales estimates show the Torch selling about 150,000 devices over its opening weekend, a figure The Wall Street Journal describes as "unimpressive, particularly in comparison with other recent smartphone debuts." Now, on the one hand, RIM's business-heavy user base might not rush out to buy new devices in their first weekend on the market (consider the general speed of corporate decision-making and new technology adoption -- and be sure to file the appropriate mental cover sheet on your thoughts when you're done). On the other hand, though, RIM needed to make a big splash with this device and drum up enthusiasm beyond its committed clientele. The lackluster start isn't insignificant.
Even current BlackBerry users, by the way, may not be as committed as you'd think: A report released by Nielsen a couple of weeks ago finds less than half of BlackBerry owners are set on purchasing another RIM-made device. Fifty-eight percent are thinking about switching to another smartphone platform -- double the figure measured among Android owners and more than five times that of the Apple-toting crowd.
When you're going up against those kind of stats, you need a phone that offers something fresh, something the competitors can't already do better. When 1GHz processors and brilliant, high-res displays are the norm among top-of-the-line devices, a 624MHz chip and modest 3.2-inch, 480-by-360 display simply don't cut it. When WebKit browsers and multitouch interfaces are standard fare, saying "we have that now too" isn't enough. And when innovative applications are pouring into platforms at a breakneck pace, failing to present something that can one-up or even match that level of development is a major mistake.
The BlackBerry Torch may be sturdy, it may be a step up from its predecessor -- but it sure isn't sexy. And it isn't going to stop hoards of users from seeking out alternatives that are.
When not contemplating smartphone sexiness, Contributing Editor JR Raphael writes the Android Power blog and cracks wise at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway. You can find him on both Twitter and Facebook.