BlackBerry to go touch-screen? PDF Print E-mail

RIM may break with tradition when it raises the curtain on its long-awaited answer to the iPhone.

Research In Motion (RIM) is not known for its dramatic flair. Like the BlackBerry itself, with its renowned e-mail security, the Canadian smartphone maker seems to put function before form.

But RIM may break with tradition next Tuesday when it raises the curtain on its long-awaited answer to the iPhone at an unusual company "event" in midtown Manhattan.

RIM is not saying why it has asked reporters and analysts to gather at the invitation-only event, which may be the company`s attempt to capture some of the frenzy Steve Jobs creates around Apple`s product launches.

"I think they are trying to create a little drama," said Michael Gartenberg, partner at research and advisory firm Altimeter Group. "When you raise expectations like that, you really then have to deliver."

In another bold gesture, RIM appears ready to announce it will do battle with Apple on its home turf by giving AT&T, the sole US iPhone provider, exclusive rights to sell the new BlackBerry in the US.

RIM won`t comment, but its invitation prominently displays AT&T`s logo alongside its own.

That would mark a tactical shift since RIM teamed with AT&T`s bigger rival, Verizon Wireless, for the high-profile launch of its first touch-screen phone, the Storm, two years ago.

For RIM, the stakes are enormous as it sets out to recapture the BlackBerry`s faded glory and maintain its dominance in the North American smartphone market.

The new device, if bloggers and analysts have it right, will feature a touch-screen as well as a full slide-out keyboard, a revamped operating system, a more user-friendly browser and other features that consumers want and older BlackBerry lines sorely lack.

The aim is to close the gap against the iPhone and handsets using Google`s Android software, such as Motorola`s latest offering, the Droid X.

"RIM is in a heated battle against Apple on AT&T for the wallets of consumers and, increasingly, consumers matter to smartphone makers," said IDC senior mobile phone research analyst Kevin Restivo.

"If RIM is going to gain significant share with consumers and maintain its number one position overall in North America, it needs this device to be a big success."

Analysts say RIM`s shift to AT&T appears a savvy strategy for this critical product push. AT&T uses the same GSM standard as an estimated 75% to 80% of the world`s wireless networks, which means the new BlackBerry can move quickly into high-growth international markets.

"It`s a quicker path to return on investment when you launch a GSM phone, because you can sell it to multiple carriers across the globe," said Dundee Securities analyst Dushan Batrovic.

"It should be significantly better than what RIM has in the existing BlackBerry portfolio right now, so those 50 million or so BlackBerry subscribers ... should be very pleased."

RIM`s decision to turn to AT&T may also reflect Verizon`s recent focus on phones based on Android, which have gained sales momentum over the past year. Verizon has marketed them aggressively.

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