BlackBerry Torch. The name of the phone that RIM hopes will revitalise BlackBerry is so metaphorically heavy handed that it almost inflicts blunt-force trauma. The iconic BlackBerry metastasised into a slider with sparkly new software, it’s wonderfully weird.
Imagine any BlackBerry released in the last year. Now imagine that the screen and trackpad sprouted downward, uncontrollably, until it reached the bottom of the phone, completely smothering the keyboard. Then a seam appeared at the bottom. You push up with your thumb and the screen smoothly slides along a track for a quarter of a second before shooting skyward, clacking into place. Solid, is how it feels. Now it’s 30 per cent taller, the touchscreen, trackpad and four ever-present BlackBerry buttons floating above the keyboard you’ve probably always loved. But this whole production is hardly thicker than the BlackBerrys that don’t split in two. That’s the Torch. At first glance, it looks, feels, is almost exactly like any other BlackBerry released in the last year, except that it happens to be a revival of the vertical slider — a squarer, better constructed exploration of what the Pre tried to accomplish. Oh, and the ridged, ripple-y rubber back is nice. I’m pretty sure you’ll never drop it.
It is odd, though. Almost schizo, really: a (non-clicky) touchscreen; a full keyboard; an optical trackpad. Conceptually, the Torch really begins to make sense in context as a product of RIM’s particular psychology. The Nielsen numbers released yesterday might illuminate what that is: Over the last year, BlackBerry’s marketshare in the US has crept downward as Android’s exploded and iOS has steadily inched up. More importantly – if Nielsen’s polling is worth a crap – while the overwhelming majority of current iPhone and Android owners plan on sticking with their phones, a majority of BlackBerry owners say their next phone is going to be Android or iPhone. It’s a fine recipe for an existential crisis.
BlackBerry 6, it’s quickly apparent, is not a clean start. It’s still very much a BlackBerry. Which is the point, as RIM’s director of user experience research made clear on BlackBerry’s official blog a week ago. “Fresh, but familiar” is the goal. The interface, initially, is very reminiscent of the Storm 2, even in the little ways it seems slightly cleaned up. What’s seriously noticeable is that the home screen now uses a drawer metaphor – a handful of icons are visible and you drag up to reveal everything hidden below. Flicking left or right takes you to a different “drawer” (or “panel”, in Android parlance). Each one is a section, like frequent apps, media apps or downloaded apps. It’s not very immediately obvious what to do – I guessed, having used Android so much. Universal search is finally on BlackBerry, so you can just start typing and finding stuff, which is a good thing. Otherwise, it looks and feels very “familiar”, as RIM is wont to say.
BlackBerry’s gambit into handling your social networking in a better, integrated way – as webOS, and most recently Android, have tried to do – is a new social feeds app that drags Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, other apps and even RSS into a single feed, which is itself integrated into BlackBerry’s central universal inbox (aka “Messages”). (So, “Messages” includes email, SMS, MMS and, if you want, messages and updates from social networking apps.) Oh, and like Android, the official Facebook and Twitter apps are baked in. (Along with apps for Google Talk and AIM and others.)
Oh yes, the much-ballyhooed WebKit browser. It is, from the second you fire it up, quite obviously better than any BlackBerry browsers ever. Faster, more competent and pinch-to-zoomy. Zooming is a little choppy on Gizmodo’s heavy page, but still totally usable and dandy. The start page is cleaner, showing simply bookmarks and history, with an integrated search + address bar. It’s hard to tell how decently it stacks up against iOS and Android’s browser without more extensive testing.
The email app looks about the same overall, though it’s using WebKit as a rendering engine for emails with fancier formatting. The very beautiful Outlook mail app for Windows Phone 7 makes it look kinda old and washed up, which has a tragic subtext to it, since BlackBerry is supposed to be all about email. The lower-res screen of the Torch doesn’t help here – reading doesn’t feel nice, the way it really should on this thing, at least not initially.
There’s a lot more to dig into, but a few things are clear right now. The Torch and BlackBerry OS 6 take what BlackBerry’s already doing and move it forward slightly – they’re not reinventing, overturning or blowing up things. Even the sorta kinda half-crazy slider design of the Torch feels fundamentally like a BlackBerry, just a leeeeettle different. Which is fine, in a way – existing BlackBerry users who just want the same thing will probably love this. But is that enough anymore? Here’s the question: Do people simply want a better BlackBerry or do they want something else, something completely new that also happens to be good at all the things BlackBerry is good at? I suppose we’ll find out.