With BlackBerry Torch and OS 6, RIM Is Still In the Game

I walked away with several impressions from this morning’s joint press event with Research In Motion (s rimm) and AT&T (s t). As the No. 1 smartphone handset maker in the U.S., it would be unfair to say that RIM is “back in the game,” mainly because that would imply that the company wasn’t in it to begin with. Instead, the release of the new BlackBerry OS 6 and BlackBerry Torch handset tells me that RIM is still in the game, with both an updated platform and devices that can take advantage of it. Although it still has the iPhone exclusively, AT&T appears fully invested to help RIM blaze a new trail with the Torch.

Based on the presentation I saw, as well as 15 minutes of hands-on time with the new Torch, I suspect many current BlackBerry owners will be happy. That’s important because a recent survey of BlackBerry customers showed that 50 percent plan to defect. The updated WebKit browser, choice of touchscreen or keyboard for input, and universal search features bring the BlackBerry up to par with the likes of iOS4 (s aapl) and Android (s goog). Indeed, much of what I saw today reminded me of my favorite Palm webOS features — efficient notifications, social network integrations and a clean interface. There’s even one or two new BlackBerry functions not natively present on other devices, such as Wi-Fi media sync.

RIM should be able to better retain its current base now that the operating system is comparable to its competitors, but what about attracting new users? Expanding RIM’s base will be tough because I saw little today that will pull existing consumers away from a comparably priced iPhone or Android handset. At $199 with contract and data plan, the new BlackBerry Torch is competing against the 16 GB iPhone 4, HTC EVO 4G, Motorola Droid X (s mot) and many other high-end handsets. RIM’s new Torch offers a similar feature set along with the stellar BlackBerry keyboard, but it still lacks a wide array of smartphone applications by comparison.

At the event, I spoke with AT&T’s Chief Marketing Officer David Christopher, and asked about this challenge. “AT&T is there to help developers,” he told me, referencing options for carrier billing support from AT&T and in-app purchases and advertising through RIM. Christopher said he understands that pulling new customers to the Torch is no small task, telling me about the custom kiosks the carrier has developed to highlight the new Torch. The carrier is starting a nationwide media blitz in two days, as well.

“BlackBerry is hip again,” Christopher said convincingly. He believes that teens want a keyboard like that of the Torch to enable their texting activities. He might be on to something there, and the native social integration in BlackBerry OS 6 is there for when those teens “graduate” to Facebook and Twitter.

The challenge for developers is RIM’s use of HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript for application development on the new platform, although such apps will have access to the same low-level phone functions as Java apps. Others such as Palm and Symbian have taken the same approach, but I wonder if it’s just too soon for widespread application development using these standards. Put another way: For as much as I believe in the idea, the implementations so far haven’t yielded much success when compared to Objective-C for iOS4 or Java for Android. More choices in programming languages can be good, but as Colin Gibbs notes in our GigaOM Pro App Developer’s Guide to Choosing a Mobile Platform (subscription required), each platform has pros and cons.

Overall, BlackBerry OS 6 puts RIM in a more competitive position to maintain its market share. And the new Torch hardware will help — it’s built like a high-end sedan but appears to offer the durability of a tank, unlike prior sliders I’ve used. I’m already thinking of it as the Lexus of smartphones, but feel free to insert your own luxury car brand. The problem is that everyone is “driving” a luxury model smartphone today, so how will RIM get folks to shop at its smartphone lot? And most of the competing phones offer better displays than the 3.2-inch, 360 x 480 display on the Torch, not to mention more than 4 GB of internal storage.

One other item of note became apparent to me at today’s event — AT&T hasn’t rested on its laurels with the iPhone. Christopher told me that AT&T worked with RIM for the past 18 months on this device. Between that tidbit and the fact that AT&T has finally launched a high-end Android handset in the Captivate, it’s evident to me that AT&T is looking beyond the iPhone, where its exclusive distribution deal is likely to soon end.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d):

Why RIM’s Future (Unfortunately) Hinges on BlackBerry OS 6