After months of rumours percolating through the blogosphere, RIM has finally shown its hand and unveiled a bona fide touchscreen smartphone called Storm — perhaps named after its big hope for the gadget: that it will storm the consumer space.
RIM co-chief executive Mike Lazaridis, and Vodafone's global director of terminals Jens Schulte-Bockum, were in London yesterday to show off the device.
The mobile operator, along with Verizon Wireless — the network that will carry the device in the US — is one-part parent to the Storm — and the proactive parent at that, according to Schulte-Bockum.
"[Last summer Vodafone] invited Mike [Lazaridis] to come over and join us for a half-day workshop in New York, locked ourselves in and basically shook him and said 'Mike, we want a real breakthrough innovation that helps us to reposition RIM from a pure enterprise tool into the consumer space, to the heart of the consumer space'."
RIM's Lazaridis confirmed: "Vodafone initiated it [Storm]."
The BlackBerry maker has been under pressure to come up with something special to compete in the increasingly crowded high-end mobile market — especially after Apple launched onto the scene in 2007 with the first iPhone. By doing away with the keyboard for its inaugural mobile, Apple left rivals scrabbling to keep up with the consumer frenzy for touchscreen devices.
Moreover, Apple's use of touchscreen technologies — capacitive and multitouch — and its marketing of the iPhone as, first and foremost, a multimedia entertainment and comms machine rather than an email tool for business, transformed the public's perception of smartphones and helped fuel the nascent market.
The emerging mass market for consumer smartphones was in danger of being totally eclipsed by iPhone mania. So action was needed, said Schulte-Bockum.
"We've been very excited partners of BlackBerry in the business space — they have a fantastic corporate user franchise... More recently we've seen that BlackBerry does have some appeal in the consumer market with products such as the Pearl and the Curve and we just felt there is something potentially big we could do together."
The "something big" may have come a year-and-a-half late to the party, but RIM has not been twiddling its thumbs: it's been developing its own take on touchscreen technology.
The BlackBerry maker has previously voiced doubts about touchscreens for mobiles. Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk's sister site, silicon.com, back in May, Lazaridis was apparently dismissive of the technology, saying: "We have to be realistic about the history of this technology. We have to remember that this is not new — this has been done, this has been tried before. And there are other ways to provide a large screen and a Qwerty keyboard without compromising them by putting one on top of the other."
It's this 'compromise' that the touchscreen tech in Storm is designed to iron out, according to Lazaridis. Since summer 2007, RIM has been working to put the 'click' back into touchscreens.
"Over time, what happened is the keyboard and the trackwheel and the trackball and the five-way joystick, they won [out over the resistive touchscreens used in the PDA/mobile industry in the 1990s]. And they won because they were separating out very naturally the navigation from the confirmation… It was a natural way of using a device where the user didn't have to confuse both steps in one action. Unfortunately all the touchscreens at the time did that…
"[With Storm] we took a state of the art multitouch capacitive touchscreen… and we put that into a second sub-system underneath, that allowed us to put in the dimension of pressure. So… it doesn't matter where you press, it clicks. It has a very subtle movement, and a very interesting suspension system that no matter where you press you get the click," he said.
Lazaridis continued: "If you watch somebody using a Storm and you don't see the front of the display, you'd swear they're typing on a keyboard. It looks like they're typing on a keyboard, it sounds like they're typing on a keyboard."
"This is far better than haptics. I always thought with haptics it felt like I was getting electrocuted," he added.
As well as a touchscreen that clicks, the HSDPA Storm packs the usual bells and whistles expected of a high-end consumer phone, including a high-resolution screen for video playback, a 3.2-megapixel camera, an MP3 player and GPS.
It does not, however, have Wi-Fi. There was simply not enough room to pack in anything else on the motherboard, according to Lazaridis. On the plus side, it does have cut and paste — something Apple has not yet been able to deliver to the iPhone.
There are also still evidently a few kinks to be ironed out on the Storm — including too much latency between taking a photograph and the shutter closing, which is an issue RIM is working on, Lazaridis told silicon.com. The touchscreen itself may also end up being an acquired taste, owing to the need to apply enough pressure to make it click.
The BlackBerry Storm will be exclusive to the Vodafone network in the UK. Schulte-Bockum said it will launch "in time for Christmas", and is aiming to make the device free with a £35-per-month tariff, although consumers will have to be willing to sign up for a two-year contract.
Asked whether they believe the Storm will survive two years of use, the two men said they are confident it will. "It's a BlackBerry," said Lazaridis.
Should Apple be worried? "Frankly all of us are having trouble keeping up with the growth of smart phones — it's growing five times faster in North American than regular phones. In fact regular phones went down, even though smartphones grew at five times the rate," Lazaridis said.
"Worldwide they're growing two, three times faster than all the other phones so I think a lot of the companies are now repositioning, whereas we've been entirely focusing on smartphones for 15 years."