Speculation over a possible touch screen BlackBerry from Research In Motion (RIM) has been bouncing around the Web for years. Smartphones and PDAs from Palm, one of RIM's biggest rivals, all had touch screens in the past, and the feature was one of the major differentiators between BlackBerrys and Treos. If you preferred touch screens, you probably went with a Palm Pilot, Treo or a Windows Mobile device; if you wanted the best QWERTY keyboard available, you likely invested in a BlackBerry. As such, it always seemed like a distinct possibility that RIM might try to one up Palm and others by offering a touch screen device of its own.
But the rumors have really picked up--and seemingly gained traction --over the past year following Apple's introduction of the iPhone. Various images of the purported RIM device have surfaced—some clearly fake, others less-obviously Photoshopped. Mike Lazaridis, RIM's co-CEO, recently admitted that his company is working on some "very interesting" user-interface technologies and won't confirm or deny the touch screen rumors. And both The Wall Street Journal and Fortune recently said a BlackBerry touch, dubbed "Thunder," is indeed in the works.
I've put a lot of thought into the idea of a touch screen BlackBerry, but have never been able to decide whether or not I really want to see one hit the market. There's just so much that weighs in the balance, and it's unclear to me whether or not the benefits outnumber the risks. What follows are five reasons why I can't wait to get my hands on touch screen BlackBerry—and four reasons it might be better for RIM if I never do. Click Here for the details.
Why a Touch Screen BlackBerry Would Be Good for RIM
5) Design: A Change Has Gotta Come
Though the BlackBerry Bold is certainly a big step in the right direction, RIM really needs to step up the design of its smartphones: A change has gotta come. I'm not saying its recent 8000 series devices aren't easy on the eye—my Curve 8320 is rather sexy, if I don't say so myself—but with the exception of a slimmed down profile and shinier colored cases, the devices look remarkably similar to smartphones RIM released years ago. The same is true for the Bold. And that's not a good thing, especially with all the competition out there making product design and device appearance a priority.
The introduction of a touch screen BlackBerry would force RIM to drastically modify the look of the device. Even if it retained the trackball, menu, escape and call/end-call buttons--which it very likely would--a BlackBerry with a touch screen would look like only a distant relative and not a sibling of existing RIM smartphones. Such design tweaks would draw more attention and entice a greater number of users to give the device a test drive, and eventually, buy one.
4) Quality Touch Screen + Enhanced Music/Video Player = BlackBerry Multimedia Machine
Let's face it, the BlackBerry's current multimedia capabilities aren't exact up to snuff. The default media player is in desperate need of an upgrade—Lazaridis even uses a third-party media app. It's worth nothing that the media player is relatively new to BlackBerrys, but it really shows: The lack of a quality multimedia player is one of BlackBerry's most obvious weaknesses.
On the other hand, the iPhone's biggest strength is its media player, an evolution of the uber popular iPod. What makes the iPhone a true multimedia machine is the combination of that iPod interface/experience and a quality touch screen.
With RIM targeting an increasingly consumer audience—think Pearl, Curve and even Bold, and suddenly ubiquitous advertising—the company's got to be planning a major multimedia makeover. A vastly improved media player paired with an effective touch screen would really give the BlackBerry inroads into the consumer market. And such a move would, in effect, be the equivalent of Apple's recent iPhone Exchange Server announcement, which marked the iPhone maker's first charge into the corporate market and onto RIM's territory.
If RIM wants to compete with Apple in the cut-throat consumer smartphone space, it's really going to have to step up its multimedia game. An enhanced media player coupled with a quality touch screen would surely take a bite out of Apple's market share.
3) Variety Is Good. Very Good.
The current variety of BlackBerry devices available to users is one of things that make RIM's device lineup so strong and its customer base so loyal—it's also one of the reasons the iPhone is no BlackBerry. A touch screen device from RIM would be a very welcome addition to the BlackBerry family, at least from a product diversity standpoint.
A wider selection of quality BlackBerry devices on the market means RIM can to cater to new and different users, and its customer base will grow larger and stronger. RIM could finally draw some of those stubborn Treo and Windows Mobile businesspeople who haven't yet left the dark side for greener smartphone pastures, due to the BlackBerry's lack of a touch screen. And a greater number of the "look at me, I've got the coolest device on the block" folk—yeah, you know the type—that Apple holds so dear will be sure to come along as well.
2) Grow User Base While Securing Place as Enterprise Smartphone King: Priceless
The introduction of a touch screen BlackBerry by RIM would be seen by most as a clear play at the vast consumer masses. Of course, it would be just that, as corporate users really aren't the ones calling for a touch screen BlackBerry. (How many times have you heard a business user say, "Gee, I really hate this BlackBerry keyboard. I need a touch screen." Not too many, I'd bet…) And RIM would surely draw more consumer users and broaden its customer base in that market with a touch screen BlackBerry.
But such a device would also help RIM secure its title as King of the Corporate Smartphone Space, because it would help the company regain the attention of all the executives and business folks who've suddenly become interested in the iPhone. Ask any CIO or IT executive what's most important to them when it comes to smartphones and nine times out of 10 you'll get the same answer: Security, security, security. (Trust me, as a writer for CIO.com, I ask tech execs that question very often.)
The BlackBerry is a security machine. It's designed from the ground up with security in mind. Every BlackBerry RIM releases can be connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), which gives organizations the ability to monitor, remotely change IT policies, disable features and even wipe the device clean on the fly. Without question, BlackBerrys are the most secure smartphones on the market.
So if a CEO or other high-level executives demands a touch screen device for whatever reason, and IT has the choice of deploying an iPhone or a touch screen BlackBerry, which do you think they'll pick? BlackBerry every time.
1) What a Wonderful Device It Could Be
RIM knows what it's doing when it comes to smartphones, and it's not going to release a device that doesn't meet its current standards of excellence. That's largely why it took so long for the Bold to be unveiled. Mike Lazaridis recently said that device was "three years in the making," and there's no doubt in my mind that RIM's been dabbling in touch screen tech for just as long—perhaps even longer.
I can't help but get all hyped up imagining what RIM's team of talented designers and engineers could do with touch screen technology and an associated user interface. The iPhone has garnered so much attention from users, the media and device manufacturers because Apple was first to come up with a touch screen and user interface that's both functional and easy to use. But who's to say RIM won't be next?
It's true, many BlackBerry users would steer clear of a touch screen device because they prefer a QWERTY keyboard, but what if RIM's touch BlackBerry had both RIM's trusty keyboard and a touch screen that's comparable to the iPhone's? Most reports about a touch screen BlackBerry seem to imply that it's an either or situation, but I don't think that's the case. I'm not a big fan of the current crop of slider smartphones with both QWERTY keyboards and touch screens—I use a T-Mobile Wing in addition to my various BlackBerrys—but I'd sure love to see RIM's take on the concept. And I guarantee that RIM's not doing away with the QWERTY keyboard anytime soon, so users who dislike touch screens will continue to have options: like the Bold.
Why a Touch Screen BlackBerry's a Bad Idea
4) Could Put a Dent in Wallets, Corporate Coffers
Traditionally, touch screen devices have been more expensive than devices with physical keyboards, even with carrier subsidies. That's for good reason, as the hardware components with a touch screen device are typically more costly than those used to make QWERTY keyboards like the ones found on BlackBerrys.
Take the iPhone and Palm's Treo 750. Initially, the 8GB iPhone went for $599 with new contract; the 4GB version was $499; and Treo 750 first sold for a minimum of $400. That's more expensive than the initial price of any BlackBerry device I've ever seen. The Bold is currently expected (hopefully!) to sell for $300 from AT&T and $350 from T-Mobile.
You can bet a touch screen device from RIM would set the record for most expensive BlackBerry. A BlackBerry touch would be a specialized device for a specific set of users and it would bear the steep pricing tag accordingly.
I don't know about you, but $400 is where I draw the line on how much scratch I'll dish out for a smartphone. I just can't pay any more than four bills, knowing that the price will be cut in half in six months—or even sooner if a newer device is released. Should a touch screen BlackBerry hit the market, there's no doubt in my mind that there will be plenty of people willing to pay even more than $400 to get their mitts on it. But I also think a percentage of users or companies who either aren't willing, or can't afford, to pay so much for a device will be left out in the cold. And that's really not good business.
3) Headaches for IT Departments
Business users are RIM's bread and butter, and it would be wise for the company to always remember that. There may be significantly more consumers out there who could become potential BlackBerry users, and RIM would no doubt love to draw as many of them as possible, but enterprises and their employees are the ones who boosted RIM to its current elite status. And RIM has been successful in the corporate market not only because of its reliable and secure devices, but also due to fact that it makes smartphone deployment as easy as possible for IT departments.
Though corporate IT would probably rather support a touch screen BlackBerry than an iPhone due to the secure BlackBerry infrastructure available to them—as mentioned above—a touch screen RIM smartphone may be still seen by some as just another new headache to deal with. It's difficult to speculate on what new IT complications a touch screen BlackBerry could bring, but here are a few possibilities:
- A touch screen BlackBerry would require a revamped operating system, and that means IT would need to learn and support a different OS for touch screen users than non-screen staffers
- It would no doubt have a larger display than its siblings with physical keyboard, and that display could be more susceptible to damage due to the increased size. If that display is the sole means of text input, minor scratches or cracks could become major issues.
- It would presumably be largely composed of glass—at least on its face, like the iPhone—and such a face would be more likely to break when dropped or banged about. Business users aren't always as careful as they could be with corporate devices because they didn't spend their own hard-earned cash on them, so it's very important those devices be able to take a beating.
- A touch screen BlackBerry would very likely be more expensive than comparable smartphones, as stated above, so IT departments may want to avoid such a device from the start. The initial price coupled with the fact that replacing a broken device would be costly may be enough for IT to decide against touch screen BlackBerry deployment, except in cases where executives or other high-level managers request/demand the device.
2) It's a Failure Unless It's Better Than the iPhone
You've got to give credit where credit is due, and Apple certainly deserves some for being the first company to create a smartphone with a touch screen that's intuitive, easy to use, functional, and perhaps more important, does not require a stylus. That's no small feat: Other gadget manufacturers like Palm, HTC and Sony Ericsson have been trying to do so for years, to no avail.
But Apple's success has left some mighty large shoes to fill. Following the iPhone's release last June, most of the major handset makers have released or unveiled their "iPhone rivals" but none has stolen even a fraction of Apple's spotlight for the simple reason that they really don't work as well as the iPhone. In reality, any company that wishes to give the iPhone's touch screen a run for its money will need to come up with a touch display and user interface that’s not just comparable to the iPhone's, but that's better. And not only will it need to be better, but it will also need to be significantly different. Bloggers and other tech pundits, including the good fellahs over at TheiPhoneBlog.com, are already claiming the BlackBerry Bold was inspired by the iPhone even though the devices share no similarities beyond rounded edges and a silver frame. (Come on guys, you can do better than that…)
A touch screen BlackBerry would be branded an iPhone copy-cat immediately upon release, and the only way it could prove the haters wrong would be if the device was truly superior—or at least uniquely different—than Apple's device. I've got lots of faith in RIM—I'm a gen-u-ine CrackBerry addict—but releasing a device with a better touch-screen-based interface than the iPhone would be real tough. And if that device is lauded by the masses as inferior to the iPhone, RIM's image, and therein, its business, would be dealt a serious blow.
1) Anything That Threatens RIM's Strong Brand Image Is a BIG No-No
RIM is one of the strongest brands in the world of technology. In fact, BusinessWeek just named the BlackBerry-maker number three on its Info Tech 100 list for 2008. Obviously, anything that could jeopardize that brand and its image should be viewed very carefully. I think the introduction of a touch screen BlackBerry could distort RIM's current image as a business device maker that also offers a consumer-oriented device or two. And it could also diffuse the strength of the company's image as the maker of QWERTY keyboard smartphones.
Here's why: Currently, RIM is seen as a company that makes business smartphones. And that's a good thing because there's a belief that business gadgets are stronger, more powerful, more reliable, etc., than consumer devices because people rely on them to do their jobs. This may not be true in all cases, but the connotation is there, and it works in RIM's favor. While I don't believe that RIM will ever offer a touch screen device without offering a sibling with a QWERTY keyboard—an 9100 and a 9300, for example—its success with a touch screen BlackBerry could become a sort of "Catch 22" for the company, in that if it is able to create a touch device to rival the iPhone, public attention will be drawn away from its QWERTY keyboard devices, which are currently strongly associated with RIM and the BlackBerry brand.
Today, a technology layman (read: non-tech-savvy consumer) who sees someone on the street toting a handheld with a full QWERTY keyboard will often refer to that device as a BlackBerry, even though it could be a Moto Q, Treo or Nokia device. Much like someone in Kinko's might say they need to "Xerox" a document even though he simply wants copies and couldn't care less if they come from a Xerox or Canon machine. RIM's keyboard is "iconic" in the words of Mike Lazaridis, because of the strong association between it and the company's reliable handhelds. Apple is well on the way to associating touch screen devices with the name "iPhone," as well, even though touch screen handhelds have been around for years—Apple even marketed a separate touch screen device called the Newton in the 90s, but it never took off. In that vein, the same technology layman who called devices with QWERTY keyboard "BlackBerrys" may refer to as any handheld with a full-face touch screen an "iPhone," because of Apple's success and clever marketing.
The fact that a touch screen BlackBerry could take away from RIM's current image as a maker of business devices and the potential brand confusion that may come from offering a device without its "iconic" keyboard, could prove to be a detrimental combination for RIM in the long run, even if its short-term sales see a boost.
So there you have it, my reasons why I think a touch screen BlackBerry's a good thing and why it's not. I'm very curious to hear all of your opinions. What are some additional reasons RIM should or shouldn't release a touch screen BlackBerry?
I'm all ears…
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