Will AT&T Exclusivity Burn RIM's BlackBerry Torch 9800?

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Research In Motion Tuesday pulled the curtain off the BlackBerry Torch 9800, a slick prosumer device that the Canadian smartphone maker hopes will help it push its way back to the top of the heap in an Apple iPhone and Google Android dominated landscape.

There's no doubt the BlackBerry Torch 9800 adds a host of hot features. The first-ever slider from RIM -- the Torch packs a 3.2-inch touch screen with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard concealed beneath -- is in addition to a 5-megapixel camera, 4 GB of memory, 512 MB of RAM and a 4-GB microSD card. And, according to RIM, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 also boasts 5.5 hours of talk time; 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, 3G and Bluetooth 2.1; and includes UMTS and GSM/GPRS/EDGE.

But here's the rub: The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is exclusive to AT&T. That's strikes one, two and three wrapped up in a single pitch. Why? AT&T has the Apple iPhone. And people don't use the Apple iPhone because it's on AT&T; users deal with AT&T because it has the iPhone, and for now AT&T is the only iPhone game in town.

So here comes RIM, looking to regain relevance in a market dominated by consumer-heavy devices like the iPhone and it sides with the only U.S. carrier that supports its chief rival and the one smartphone that could spell its doom. Pretty bold move, no pun intended.

What's more? The BlackBerry Torch 9800 isn't priced to compete against the iPhone, either. RIM said the Torch will retail for $199.99 with a two-year AT&T service contract, which requires users to select one of AT&T's two data plans: the $15 per month 200-MB plan, or the $25 per month 2-GB plan.

The 16-GB model of the Apple iPhone 4 is the same price -- $199.99 -- and has the same contractual obligations. The 32-GB Apple iPhone 4 costs just $100 more for double the storage.

Another hurdle for RIM and the BlackBerry Torch 9800 smartphone is the strong consumer desire for all things iPhone. A Nielsen report issued this week noted that the Apple iPhone is still the most coveted smartphone out there, meaning the BlackBerry Torch will have to woo away iPhone hopefuls, despite running on the same network as its main foe.

"Among current subscribers thinking of switching devices, the iPhone remains the most desired phone, finding loyalty with nearly 90 percent of current iPhone users and enticing healthy slices of Android users (21 percent) and BlackBerry owners (29 percent) to consider the move to Apple," according to Nielsen. "Android's loyalty among switchers (71 percent) outperforms Blackberry (42 percent) where half of its users could potentially choose an iPhone or an Android phone for their next device."

RIM is putting a great deal of weight on its new operating system, BlackBerry OS 6.0, which will first be featured in the BlackBerry Torch 9800. BlackBerry 6.0 is just as slick as the device that houses it, featuring a redesigned home screen, universal search options and an updated Webkit browser that can maintain back-forward lists, collect Web histories, perform searches, bookmark pages and adds pinch, zoom and tab capabilities.

But is a new OS enough to edge out Apple as the king of smartphone mountain? Is it enough to put BlackBerry back on the tip of both enterprise users' and consumers' tongues? Possibly, but it's not going to be easy. And odds are if someone really wants to be on AT&T's network, they'll do so with an Apple iPhone.

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