Back in 1999, an obscure Canadian company called Research In Motion (RIMM) defied conventional wisdom and put a keyboard on a pager-size device, creating the first BlackBerry. Now RIM has struck again, this time by eliminating the physical keyboard from its new BlackBerry Storm smartphone. The Storm will be available later this fall from Verizon Wireless in the U.S. and from Vodafone (VOD) in Europe and parts of Asia.
Apple's (AAPL) iPhone made the world safe for onscreen keyboards, but the Storm is radically different and (based on the hour or so I spent with the handset) considerably better. The Storm uses a touchscreen similar to the iPhone's, where you move your finger lightly on the surface to navigate around the screen. To confirm a selection or menu choice, you press harder. The slight flexing of the display triggers a tiny switch beneath it, generating distinct tactile feedback. This avoids a common problem on touchscreens: It can be difficult to distinguish between just moving around the display and initiating an action.PC Keyboard Feel
You really feel the difference when typing on the on-screen keyboard. A firm press creates a sensation uncannily like pressing physical buttons, much more so than the vibration generated by the Samsung Instinct's touch keyboard. My initial reaction was that typing was easier and more accurate than on the iPhone—or any other touchscreen keyboard. The keys show up in two configurations: When you hold the Storm horizontally, you get a full keyboard that fills the width of the screen. When you turn it vertically, you get a SureType keyboard, like the one on the BlackBerry Pearl, with two letters sharing most keys and adept software that usually figures out which letter you meant to hit.
The Storm's screen, like the iPhone's, treats touch as more than just another way to move a cursor. Unfortunately, it can't do the iPhone trick of enlarging or shrinking screen contents in response to a finger pinch or stretch. But unlike the iPhone, it does let you edit by cutting and pasting—and you can use a two-finger stretch to select text. You can also use a flick of a finger to scroll pages up or down, which is particularly handy for browsing quickly through a list of e-mails.Global 3G Capability
This new BlackBerry is hiding an important breakthrough. Developed in partnership with Verizon and Vodafone, the Storm is a true world phone. Here's the problem RIM had to solve: Verizon has a high-speed data network that is widely regarded as the best in the U.S., but its technology is incompatible with that used by carriers in the rest of the world. RIM first bridged the gap last year with the globe-trotting BlackBerry 8830, which runs on both Verizon and Vodafone networks, but that model can handle high-speed data only in North America. The Storm is the first phone to work on high-speed, 3G data services on both kinds of networks.
The Storm's browser is an improvement on previous RIM efforts, largely because Web pages are easier to view in the horizontal format and because you can pull hidden portions of the page into view with a finger. Nice—but it's still no match for the iPhone's browsing finesse. The Storm also lacks Wi-Fi, which iPhone users may miss, though access to worldwide 3G data speeds partly makes up for that. Otherwise, the Storm has all the goodies you expect from a contemporary smartphone, including GPS, decent video and music players, stereo Bluetooth, and a 3.2-megapixel camera. Following Google's (GOOG) Android and Apple, RIM is making it easier to get third-party programs for the Storm and other handsets by setting up BlackBerry Application Centers with carriers.
The Storm is not an iPhone killer, nor is it intended to be. RIM's emphasis is on e-mail and business applications, and its products are designed to be managed by corporate technology departments. Like its predecessors, the new BlackBerry is aimed squarely at mobile executives. But the Storm incorporates much of the fresh thinking that characterizes the consumer-oriented iPhone. The key test will be whether business users who spend a lot of time on their keyboards will be willing to migrate to a touchscreen. Based on my brief experience, I think the Storm is an excellent alternative to traditional BlackBerrys.