Canadian smartphone manufacturer Research In Motion has been going through the juicer lately. Despite boasting 67 million customers globally they have suffered reduced sales and lower profits over the last few quarters. But on a hot summer’s day in London RIM took decisive action to deflect the critical spotlight that has been trained upon them of late, with the global launch of five new smartphones – the Bold 9900/9930, Torch 8910 and All-Touch Torch 9850/9860 – all of which utilize the latest version of their operating system, OS7.
In reality it’s only three new products for Europe as the other two are CDMA versions destined for the US market and arguably, the Bold 9900 was announced a couple of months back. Dig deeper though and you could say it’s just one, admittedly high-tier phone platform that has been cleverly spun out in to three different format factors (and price points) to appeal to a wider audience.
That said, it’s still interesting to see how RIM is responding to the challenge of Android and Apple’s growing dominance in the smartphone space and the criticisms aimed at its OS and sluggish user experience with these new devices, due to ship within a month.
Each of the new OS7 devices benefits from an adrenalin shot of processing power with the inclusion of a 1.2GHz CPU. Memory has been boosted too with 768MB of RAM and a GPU that provides a smoother onscreen experience dubbed Liquid Graphics.
At a glance the revamped OS7 has the look and feel of OS6 with a series of pop-up menus first seen on the Torch 9800 and Bold 9780 but with the addition of the GPU, Liquid Graphics really does create a much smoother and faster response when scrolling.
The Webkit browser has been enhanced with best-in-class HTML5 support and 40% speed improvement. This latest version of BBM6 also has tighter social networking integration tied in to Wikitude, an Augmented Reality application that lets you see where your BBM contacts are on a map.
Skipping over the fine looking NFC-enabled Bold 9900, which is expected to be the first of the three to ship (18 August), arguably the most interesting phone announced is the All-Touch Torch 9850. It’s a clear departure from the design elements employed by many existing BlackBerrys and that includes the touch-only Storm. Sporting a 3.7-inch display, it’s the largest amount of screen real estate seen on a BlackBerry smartphone yet the 9850 is still only 11.5mm thick.
Onboard is 4GB of memory as well as GPS and a digital compass. It stands a good chance of being the first real contender from RIM to take on the slew of slender and feature-rich Android devices currently dominating the marketplace.
The 9810 is both a revamp and a refresh of the original hybrid-touch slider that introduced the Torch brand a year ago. Aside from a lick of zinc coloured paint, there’s the bump in processor speed and memory from an arguably underpowered 624MHz to 1.2GHz and now 768MB of RAM and 8GB of embedded storage compared to 512MB and 4GB. The subtle changes under the hood make the phone more responsive than before and the added benefit of HD video capture enhance its multimedia capabilities.
However you do have to wonder whether the new OS7 phones are purely a gap filler until an entirely new breed of QNX-enabled smartphones enter the stage in 2012. The incremental changes from OS6 to OS7 while welcome, are mostly cosmetic improvements to the user experience and social networking functionality with BBM, and are perhaps not the attention-grabbing overhaul many expected.
Ultimately what needs to be addressed for BlackBerry devices of today and tomorrow to succeed is a compelling and cohesive applications ecosystem, something which was barely touched upon at today’s launch event. Thin, touch-enabled BlackBerrys with zippy processors are great, but without the killer apps, the challenging times could continue for the Canadian tech company.