Over the past few weeks, I have used about a dozen smartphones. The experience has convinced me that touchscreens will soon be the main way we control phones—and that the days of miniature keyboards may well be numbered. This would seem to be bad news for Research In Motion (RIMM). Even though its keyboard-centric BlackBerrys have gained market share in the face of Apple's (AAPL) iPhone onslaught, those little keys feel very last year. RIM is now demonstrating that it has the problem licked.
The company introduced its first touch model, the Storm, about a year ago, earning strong sales but mixed reviews. (I liked it a lot better than most.) Now, RIM is back with a vastly improved Storm 2, available from Verizon Wireless and Vodafone (VOD) later this fall.
Thicker Than an iPhoneThe Storm 2 appears almost identical to its predecessor. It's a bit shorter and thicker than an iPhone, with a slightly smaller display. The biggest change is in the touch mechanism. The original Storm used a microswitch under the center of the display to activate an onscreen selection—pressing a key on the virtual keyboard, launching an app, or going to a Web link. The Storm 2 replaces the switch with sensors at the display's corners. When you tap for an action, you get a tactile click so convincing you will swear the glass has moved, though it hasn't.
This small change produces a huge difference in usability. When typing on the original, you had to lift your finger to release the switch before you could press the next key, which had a nasty effect on the rhythm of typing. The new keyboard feels much more natural, and I found that both my speed and accuracy improved significantly. In addition, the display is now completely sealed around the edges, so pocket lint and other crud can no longer get behind the glass.
Keyboards on smartphones force big compromises—which is one reason I'm so bullish on touch technology. The traditional BlackBerry "candy bar" design requires displays that are too small. A slide-out keyboard allows a big screen, but whether it is vertical, as on the Palm (PALM) Pre, or horizontal, as on the new Motorola (MOT) CLIQ, it produces a poorly balanced and clumsy handset.
Touchpads, Not TrackballsOf course, RIM is not abandoning physical keyboards anytime soon. A new version of the Bold, another flagship product aimed at professional users, is expected to be announced soon. It will be considerably smaller—about the same size as the popular consumer-oriented Curve. And like the most recent Curves and future keyboard-based BlackBerrys, it will swap out the often-finicky trackball for a touchpad (actually a miniature camera that senses finger movements).
RIM has no illusions that the Storm 2 is an iPhone killer. Instead, the company is reinforcing the BlackBerry's strengths, which coincide with the iPhone's weaknesses: e-mail, battery life, and voice phone quality and usability. And RIM is addressing the phone's shortcomings. The Storm 2 and all future BlackBerrys include Wi-Fi. The browser, while still not up to iPhone, Android, or Pre standards, is much improved, and a more modern version is in the works.
RIM is well behind the competition in the app wars, but it has just announced new tools that will make it easier for third-party developers to take advantage of BlackBerry features such as contacts. And it's working on a new, more app-friendly operating system.
The latest run of smartphones, from the iPhone 3GS to the Storm 2, shows that competition is working the way it should, improving the breed for all of us.
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