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RIM releases new BlackBerry, but is it enough?

Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) officially unveiled its latest smartphone Tuesday, a new touchscreen model with a slide-out keyboard designed to challenge Apple's iPhone, but analysts questioned whether the Torch is innovative enough to woo consumers.

Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) officially unveiled its latest smartphone Tuesday, a new touchscreen model with a slide-out keyboard designed to challenge Apple's iPhone, but analysts questioned whether the Torch is innovative enough to woo consumers.

The new BlackBerry will be released in the United States next week for $199 on a two-year contract, while Bell (TSX:BCE), Rogers (TSX:RCI.B) and Telus (TSX:T.A) all say they plan to offer it in Canada. Rogers was the most specific about its plans, saying a release will take place "in the coming weeks."

The phone is packed with consumer-friendly features, including built-in links to social networks like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, and has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard to appeal to users who have been frustrated by typing on touchscreen keypads.

The Torch is the first BlackBerry to operate off RIM's new operating system, software that modernizes how the phones connect to the web and handle multimedia. The latest web browser supports tabs to view multiple sites and is designed to automatically format text for easiest reading. A new multimedia feature allows users to wirelessly access their iTunes library over Wi-Fi and download songs to a BlackBerry.

The new operating system will also work with some BlackBerrys already on the market, including the Bold 9700, Bold 9650 and Pearl 3G.

Analysts say Tuesday's news is a significant step forward for the company and keeps alive hopes to compete in the consumer smartphone market. But Research in Motion wasn't able to go a step further than Apple and really "wow" with its announcement, said Mark Tauschek, research director for Info-Tech Research Group.

"The actual device I think looks pretty good, and from a functionality perspective I think BlackBerry OS 6 has nice improvements — basically mixing the touchscreen capabilities of a BlackBerry Storm with a traditional BlackBerry will be compelling to some," Tauschek said.

But he questioned whether it's good enough to really stand out in a crowded market.

"I think time will tell but my inclination is it maybe is not. It's a tough row to hoe for RIM to keep up with the iPhone 4 and some of the pretty compelling Android devices we're seeing as well."

Ian Lee, MBA director at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, is a self-professed BlackBerry user and said he too had mixed feelings about the announcement. He acknowledged RIM has made good progress in making the BlackBerry appeal more to consumers but said it's still at risk of being left behind.

"Today's product launch was absolutely crucial in trying to turn around the decline in the market share that's occurring right now," he said.

"I'm sure it's bigger and better and faster and more powerful but at most they caught up today to Apple's iPhone and I'm not sure they even caught up."

Lee had hoped the Torch would be as awe-inspiring as the original BlackBerry devices.

"It was cutting edge when it first came out and it grabbed everyone's attention, it was the 'it' technology. But they've ceded that title — really, to be brutally blunt — to Apple's iPhone and the BlackBerry is no longer seen to have that aura about it.

"When BlackBerry came out you thought it was magic, and it was magic, but Apple has raised the bar on the magic quotient."

A study released Monday by the Nielsen Company suggested that while Research in Motion still leads the way with market share in the United States — with 35 per cent of smartphone subscribers, versus 28 per cent for Apple, 15 per cent for Microsoft Windows Mobile phones and 13 per cent for Android phones — customer loyalty was a growing issue.

About 90 per cent of iPhone users had no intentions of switching, but 29 per cent of BlackBerry users were considering an iPhone and another 21 per cent were thinking about an Android phone. Only 42 per cent were leaning towards sticking with another BlackBerry.

Lee has a contract about to expire and isn't sure which phone he'll buy next.

"I'm sitting on the fence right now and I do not know yet which way I'm going to go," he said.

"I've been very pleased with my BlackBerry in the past because of the instantaneous email, I've used it around the world — I used it in China and Europe roaming and in Dubai — but there's so much more functionality with Apple.

"There's a lot of neat features with Apple that I don't have."

 
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