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RIM’s 'Fresh But Familiar' Strategy is Dangerously Safe

I usually don’t pay close attention to the way executives act on stage when they’re launching new products, but I got the feeling that RIM’s co-CEO Mike Laziridis was pretty nervous as he introduced the BlackBerry Torch.  And I don’t necessarily blame him. This is the device that’s supposed to keep the BlackBerry faithful from jumping ship to Android or iOS at a time Nielsen just reported that half of BlackBerry owners are considering a switch to one of those two platforms.

And that’s not the only battle RIM is fighting. The smart phone superpower butted heads this week with the governments of India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, because they all want to tap BlackBerry’s encrypted messages. I suspect RIM will be able to negotiate its way out of the latter mess. It’s the company’s “fresh-but-familiar” Torch and new BlackBerry 6 OS that has some pundits saying the company is doomed. I wouldn’t go that far, but RIM must find a better way to compete with the likes of Apple, HTC, and Motorola before BlackBerry becomes the next Windows Mobile.

When you think about it, there are plenty of parallels between the Windows Mobile 6.5 OS Microsoft scrapped and the BlackBerry OS. Historically, both platforms have had success with business customers (RIM more so with BlackBerry), and over time, each company has attempted to tack consumer-friendly features on top, including better touch support, an improved browsing experience, and enhanced media playback. The difference? RIM is starting from a much stronger position with BlackBerry 6. Yes, BlackBerry has now fallen to second place behind Android (33 percent vs. 28 percent) in the U.S., but RIM is still ahead of the iPhone (22 percent). That’s probably why RIM didn’t want to start with a clean slate, as Microsoft is doing with Windows Phone 7—BlackBerry actually has fans. Still, that doesn’t excuse RIM from equipping the Torch with last year’s specs.

At a time when Apple is touting its 3.5-inch Retina display with a 960 x 640-pixel resolution while HTC, Motorola, and Samsung are trotting out superphones with 4-inch and larger screens with 800 x 480-pixel resolutions, the Torch comes to the party sporting a 3.2-inch, 480 x 360-pixel screen.

To be fair, the Palm Pre Plus has a smaller and lower-res screen (3.1 inches, 480 x 320), but it’s based on a design that was introduced in January 2009. During our initial hands-on time, we also noticed that the Torch was a bit sluggish, perhaps because it’s saddled with a 624-MHz processor. RIM says it’s a relatively new chip, but the original BlackBerry Bold 9000 that debuted in late 2008 was running at the same speed. Today’s state-of-the-art Android phones clock in at 1 GHz.

The BlackBerry 6 OS itself is the biggest news, and RIM deserves some credit for finally giving users a modern WebKit-based browser. The presentation is more desktop-like, and the browser supports pinch-to-zoom and slick tabs for quickly switching between open pages. I also like the separate Social Feeds feature that aggregates Facebook and Twitter, though the dedicated BlackBerry apps with which they integrate pale in comparison to what you’ll find on Android and iOS. While a welcome addition, Universal Search— which allows users to scan for apps, e-mail, and more by typing from the home screen—feels like it was lifted from the webOS playbook. The imitation-as-flattery motif continues with an Android-like notification window that drops down from the top of the screen with a tap, albeit with a cleaner look. BlackBerry 6 does bring some unique ideas to the table as well, including the ability to sync music with your PC over Wi-Fi, but some early reviews have cited inconsistent results.

The Achilles’ heel of the BlackBerry platform remains its lackluster selection of apps, which tops out at 9,000, compared to 70,000 for Android and 225,000 for iOS. RIM has confirmed that BlackBerry 6 will not support 3D APIs or OpenGL 2.0, so the OS will continue to trail the competition when it comes to high-quality games. The biggest improvement this time around is that you can now charge apps to your AT&T account, but that convenience won’t matter if there aren’t any cool impulse buys.

Overall, RIM hasn’t reinvented the wheel with the Torch or BlackBerry 6, and it’s not pretending that it did. But by playing it safe RIM likely won’t be able to steal shoppers away from the iPhone or the best Android phones. The OS and device do look good enough to keep at least some current BlackBerry owners around. Just as Microsoft learned the hard way with Windows Mobile, sometimes you have to be willing to alienate some of your core followers to create the best possible combination of hardware and software. And that’s one fundamental advantage RIM still has over Android. Unless the company can match its new OS with more modern specs and help its developer partners roll out more compelling apps, the BlackBerry brand’s flame might get extinguished.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.