One memory sticks in my mind from the Dive Into Mobile conference that All Things Digital held in San Francisco last December. It was when my friend Lance Ulanoff of PCMag.com waved his BlackBerry Torch at RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis and asked, basically, why RIM couldn’t give him a BlackBerry phone based on hardware as potent as a current iPhone or Android handset.
Lazaridis didn’t really have a good answer for Lance. Actually, it was hard to tell exactly what his response was, but it sounded like it involved RIM opting out of the current phone hardware wars and waiting until it can build BlackBerries that incorporate dual-core processors and run a version of the QNX-based operating system that’s on the BlackBerry PlayBook.
Well, RIM made a gaggle of announcements today at its BlackBerry World conference in Orlando, and among them are two new BlackBerries due this summer–the Bold 9900 and 9930–that come closer to being the phone that Lance was asking about than any BlackBerry to date. (They don’t run QNX, but do have BlackBerry OS 7–a new version of RIM’s old platform that isn’t backwards-compatible with earlier handsets.)
Comparing the Bold 9900 to the Torch (its predecessor as the flagship BlackBerry) and the Bold 9780 (an earlier model in the Bold line) show a healthy boost in specs:
Screen: The Bold 9900 has a 640-by-480 touchscreen (the Torch and Bold 9780 have 360 by 480, and the 9780 doesn’t do touch);
Processor: The 9900 has a 1.2-GHz single-core processor (the Torch and Bold 9780 have 624-MHz ones);
RAM: The 9900 has 768MB of RAM (the Torch and 9780 have 512MB);
Storage: The 9900 has 8GB onboard plus MicroSD (the Torch has 4GB and comes with a 4GB MicroSD card; the 9780 comes with a 2GB card).
None of these specs are spectacular compared to the iPhone 4 or top-of-the-line Android phones, but they’re in the ballpark in a way that previous BlackBerries were not.
The Bold 9900 also comes with NFC capability, joining the Nexus S as one of the few phones to sport it. Unless you happen to live in an area where there are trials going on of services that use NFC for easy payments and other stuff, this doesn’t matter much right now–but it’s nice to see RIM jump in early on this.
Of course, specs mean very little by themselves–they’re only a boon if they translate into a snappier, smoother, more enjoyable user experience. Engadget has video of a RIM employee’s walkthrough of a new Bold, and while it’s hard to judge a phone you haven’t touched yourself, it looks like it stands a chance of being the phone that the Torch should have been: a BlackBerry that truly feels like it’s part of the iPhone era.
It’s still not the all-new great leap forward that a BlackBerry based on QNX could be, but given how profoundly rough the PlayBook is, it’s clear that the new software is in no shape to be put onto phones yet.
Even if the new BlackBerries are slick and satisfying, RIM’s third-party app situation remains murky. It’s still astoundingly rare for major apps that arrive on the iPhone and/or Android to show up in BlackBerry OS versions, too. And with BlackBerry OS presumably giving way to QNX sooner or later–and RIM also touting support for Flash and AIR and Android–it’s possible that developers may not sink resources into RIM’s aging OS, period.
We’ll know that RIM’s future is bright indeed when and if it releases a BlackBerry so compelling that iPhone and Android fans switch allegiances in meaningful numbers and get one. Neither the Bold 9900 nor the 9930 is that phone. But RIM’s immediate challenge isn’t making iPhone and Android fans happy; it’s preventing RIM loyalists from leaving. I’ll be curious to see how the Lances of the world react to the new models once they’re available.