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RIM challenges iPhone with BlackBerry Torch 9800, gets rave reviews.

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (TSE.RIM) threw the gauntlet at iPhone maker Apple Inc. (NASDAQ.AAPL), Tuesday, as it unveiled what it called the "best Blackberry device ever."

RIM attempted to create an Apple-esque media frenzy Tuesday, unveiling its first slider smartphone at an event in New York City, and calling it the Torch 9800 contrary to rumors it would be called Bold 9800 or Slider 9800.

The "fresh and exciting and also familiar" device had generated buzz for several weeks for the Canadian company, whose BlackBerry range of smartphones have become popular among corporate users because of its security and corporate integration ability.

"We spent a lot of time on the details - how the applications interact, how the features interact," said RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis.

The new device boasts of as 5-megapixel camera with flash, autofocus and geo-tagging feature, a large 3.2-inch capacitive touchscreen (with 480x360 pixel display) and a 624MHz processor.

The Torch 9800 will continue to appeal to corporate users with secure Microsoft Exchange Server e-mail and calendar support, and other corporate features characteristic of RIM's devices.

It should also appeal to music fans as the device supports the company's Media Sync service that streams DRM-free music from the user's home media library over Wi-Fi connections.

"This device is going to be geared towards both enterprise and consumer that will be a positive, as people will feel that if they design for this device, they can hit two birds with one stone," said Mackie Research Capital analyst Nick Agostino.

What sets Torch 9800 really apart from other BlackBerrys is that it is the first smartphone to feature the latest BlackBerry 6 OS, which packs a completely revamped Web browser; multi-touch input gestures, an improved notification system, and a number of new core applications.

BlackBerry 6, Lazaridis said, is the "outcome of RIM's ongoing passion to deliver a powerful, simplified and optimized user experience for both touch screen and keyboard fans."

"Following extensive research and development to address consumer needs and wants, we are delivering a communications, browsing and multimedia experience that we think users will love, and we are thrilled to debut BlackBerry 6 on the amazing new BlackBerry Torch smartphone," he said.

BlackBerry 6 also signals a transition for RIM into the social networking realm.

Unlike its predecessors that only catered to the needs of the corporate users, BlackBerry 6 offers integrated connectivity with social networking sites like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook and hence is likely to appeal to a broader customer base.

It also has a "feed application" to capture Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace social networking updates into a single place.

The device will begin selling from August 12 at $199 with a two-year contract with AT&T, the exclusive wireless partner for Apple's iPhone.

Market analysts have hailed RIM's move, saying the new Torch 9800 will give Apple's iPhone a run for its money.

"It looks like an outstanding product. It really closes the gap with Android and iPhone - probably more Android, because Apple really offers something unique. But RIM really overhauled the user interface. I think they've regained their No.2 position in terms of technology," said Kaufman Bros. analyst Shawn Wu.

In the past, RIM tried to challenge the iPhone with touchscreen-only BlackBerry Storm but it was plagued by both software and hardware glitches. It was followed by Storm 2 but that device too failed to live up to the 'iPhone killer' hype, enjoying limited success and finding it hard to compete against the likes of even a string of Google Android-based smartphones launched by HTC, Motorola and Samsung.

And, with a Nielsen survey revealing that 50 percent of BlackBerry users desired an iPhone or Android phone for their next purchase, RIM decided not to go ahead with a touchscreen-only device but rather launched a device that incorporates RIM's core strength - a physical keyboard - as well as compelling multi-touch features.

RIM's latest move is crucial for to fend off challenges from iPhone and other smartphones that run on Google's Android OS, analysts said.

Currently, RIM trails Apple in the US in terms of smartphone sales, with 33 percent market share, but is slightly ahead of Android-based smartphones, which have captured 27 percent of the US smartphone market, according to Nielsen.

According to CIBC World Markets analyst Todd Coupland, RIM did the right thing by launching a touchscreen-based smartphone with a slide-out keyboard as earlier versions of its touch-screen only devices did not fare that well.

The ability to upgrade some older Blackberry's to the new OS - available later this year - was also a good move, analysts said.

"I was happy to see the OS6 and new browser is going to work on some of the older devices. There was some question on whether it would work on anything prior to today...Not everyone is going to buy a touchscreen," Coupland said.

Most importantly, Torch 9800 is "priced where you would expect it to be priced," the analyst added.

As for AT&T, the analysts said they weren't surprised to see the US No.2 mobile operator launch an iPhone rival.

The primary reason behind AT&T's move, the analysts said, was because the wireless carrier wanted to reduce its dependency on the iPhone for its growth.

And, with its exclusivity period with Apple is set to expire next year, AT&T is looking to promote a wide range of non-Apple products, the analysts said.

"AT&T's exclusive contract with Apple will end at some point, so they're certainly feeling the pressure to have another new device," said Greg MacDonald, a National Bank Financial analyst in Toronto. "Exclusive contracts allow the carrier and the device maker to have something special in the marketplace and take a bit of a gamble, which can certainly pay off."

The launch of the Torch 9800 reignites AT&T's business partnership with RIM, which dates back to 2008 when the wireless carrier was the exclusive retailer for the original BlackBerry Bold, the analyst added.
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Publication:International Business Times - US ed.
Date:Aug 3, 2010
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