Today, Research In Motion (RIM) launched the new BlackBerry Curve 8520 smartphone, an evolution of the Curve 83xx and Curve 8900 families of BlackBerry devices. Though the new Curve's really nothing groundbreaking--it's basically a combination of the two earlier Curves--the device features one brand new BlackBerry component that could prove to be quite significant: the trackpad. But why would RIM ditch its traditional track ball now and release the trackpad on its cheapest, lowest-end BlackBerry ever? Keep moving for an official answer from RIM, as well as my own "unofficial" opinion.
I was in New York City yesterday for RIM's BlackBerry Curve 8520 launch event, and I took the question of why the new Curve was first to get the trackpad to the source: RIM's Director of Public Relations, Shelly Sofer.
Sofer claims that the Curve 8520 got the trackball before any other BlackBerry device for no other reason than timing. (The device product manager on site gave me the same PR-speak response.) RIM has been working on the trackpad for some time, according to Sofer--remember those "atomic track ball" rumors? It just so happens that the trackball was ready for the big time at the same point that Curve 8520 design work got underway, Sofer says. The Curve 8520 got the brand new trackpad because it was the next device RIM planned to launch, and the timing coincided with the readiness of the new trackpad, according to Sofer.
Makes sense, right? Sure 'nough. But I don't believe that's the whole story. RIM's launching new devices nowadays like a steroid-laden Manny Ramirez does baseballs. Surely RIM could've squeezed the trackball onto the BlackBerry Tour, which was released on Verizon Wireless and Sprint less than one month ago...but it didn't want to.
I believe that RIM (wisely) launched its new trackpad design along with the low-end Curve 8520, because it has less to lose if for whatever reason the trackpad doesn't pan out or isn't embraced by users.
Images and specifications on the upcoming BlackBerry "Onyx" leaked weeks ago, and among the speculation are rumors that the device, which will be a high-end replacement for the BlackBerry Bold 9000, will also sport a trackpad. In fact, some sneaky soul even leaked an image of the purported device, so it's fairly certain that RIM is at least evaluating the trackpad on the Onyx, though it's unclear whether or not such a trackpad-equipped device will ever hit the market.
It makes a heck of a lot more sense for RIM to launch what is, in essence, an experimental navigation system on a device that sells for less than $50 than on one that goes for upwards of $200. I think of it like this: If you're playing poker and you've got a great hand, you're much more likely to go all in and take your chances against the rest of the table if the maximum bet is only $10 or $20, right? Raise those stakes to $1000 or $5000, and you're likely reconsider--at least if you're smart.
In this metaphor, RIM's customers are the poker chips. The folks who're most likely to purchase a BlackBerry Curve 8520 are very different than those who might go for the Bold or Onyx. They're probably new to the world of smartphones, and therefore, have less ground for comparison. They're not already used to the way the BlackBerry track ball works. They're less demanding. They're the $5 or $10 chips
But the people who'll line up to buy the Onyx when it's (finally) available--myself included--they're the $100 and $500 chips. They expect a LOT from RIM. And they've probably been using BlackBerry devices for years, so they know what level of performance to expect.
If a high-end device like the Onyx launched to extremely negative reviews--and it would if the trackpad didn't work as well or better than the current track balls--those loyal customers could quickly turn on RIM and embrace Apple, Palm, Google or any other smartphone maker. RIM's wisely not subjecting its most loyal users to "unproven" technology, because it doesn't want to lose them. At least that's my take.
In the past 24 hours or so I've spent with the Curve 8520 and its trackpad, I've come to really like it. I had to bump up the sensitivity a bit, but as far as I can tell at the moment, RIM's got a real winner on its hands...err, thumbs.
The true test here will be the test of time; whether or not the trackpad can take a beating from abusive users and remain functional. That remains to be seen, but I assure you I'll be keeping a close eye on those trackpads.
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