New Torch Illustrates BlackBerry Keyboard and Brand Dilemma

To me the new BlackBerry Torch looks something like the Palm Pre, with its portrait-slider design. It offers a physical keyboard and an a touch-screen keypad as well. I see the dual-keypad design as a metaphor for the dilemma RIM faces around issues of brand identity, the physical keyboard and user loyalty.

By all accounts the touch-screen only BlackBerry Storm was a flop in terms of design and sales. The absence of a physical keyboard is part of the story of why the device failed. The dual-keypad Torch, by contrast, has received largely positive mentions, including a mostly positive review from the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg today:

I’ve been testing the new Torch with BlackBerry 6, and I view it as a big improvement over earlier, stodgy BlackBerry models. It might help stem the urge to switch to iPhone and Android, and even steal some users from those and other platforms, especially as the company brings out additional models that use the new software. And it shows that, contrary to some recent speculation, RIM is hardly dead or dying. In fact, the new phone and software are just the start of its plan to revitalize the BlackBerry franchise.

The Torch is not likely to win tons of new BlackBerry users but it may preserve loyalty in the face of growing Android and iPhone interest among BlackBerry users. Recent Nielsen survey data (confirmed by other, similar surveys) shows BlackBerry user loyalty (42%) far below that of the iPhone (89%) and Android devices (72%). 

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A critical article in CNN anecdotally identifies the chief source of the BlackBerry franchise and appeal -- its keyboard:

Despite the fact that the BlackBerry isn't hip, high-tech or cheaper than its main competitors, the phones are still the most popular (or at least the most common) in the U.S. market, and they're growing internationally.

So why do so many people still tolerate these phones?

It turns out, according to a handful of interviews with BlackBerry users, there are three basic reasons: People are addicted to the click-clacking keyboard; they love the blinking red light on the top, which alerts users to new messages; and many just happen to have the phone because it's required for work.

The article continues: 

The details of how the BlackBerry keyboard feels are what make it addictive, said Nan Palmero, a writer for another fan site, BlackBerryCool.com.

"They really go to great lengths to raise plastic in certain ways on the keys," he said of the tactile keyboard's design. "They kind of describe it as guitar frets: Your hand naturally knows where to go and where to be."

The corporate bias in favor of RIM devices will fade over time; it already is as the iPhone gains Fourtune 500 acceptance. The intrinsic appeal of the BlackBerry lies in the keyboard; that's the brand. Accordingly, to the extent that RIM builds touch-screen only devices (like the Storm) it's likely to fail or see lackluster sales. But it must equally address the touch-screen trend promoted by its chief rivals.

It has done that with the dual-keypad approach seen in the Torch. 

Another wrinkle is that RIM devices typically have a "portrait" orientation. While the Storm could be rotated to landscape mode that's the only RIM handset that did, though the Torch may as well. Thus the physical keyboard and, to a lesser degree, the portrait orientation represent challenges or design constraints that RIM must contend with as it competes in an increasingly fierce smartphone handset market. 

Of course RIM could come out with a new breakthrough device that renders all this meaningless but that's not likely in the immediate future.