BlackBerry’s Bold Upgrades Aren’t Bold Enough

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Research In Motion introduced two new smartphones for its BlackBerry handset lineup on Monday, each of which brings advanced features, and an operating system to better compete against Apple’s iPhone and handsets running on Google’s Android platform. But it still feels like the device maker is buying time as it seeks a formula to win in the fast-moving handset market.

The BlackBerry Bold 9900 and 9930 were launched at BlackBerry World, RIM’s annual developer event, held in Orlando, Fla. this year, but neither runs on the new QNX platform. Both phones will support a new feature to securely separate work and personal use on the handsets, while the PlayBook tablet also gains video chat software and a Facebook application.

With the new phones, RIM is following in the steps of other smartphone manufacturers, who are quickly boosting device capabilities with advanced hardware: a tech cycle accelerating so fast that nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers polled say their current handset is obsolete. The new Bold is the first 4G-capable BlackBerry handset in the company’s history. Among the notable improvements to the new Bold devices:

  • A fast 1.2 GHz processor combined with 768 MB of memory
  • Capacitive 2.8-inch touchscreen at 640×480 resolution
  • 8 GB of internal storage with expansion capability up to 32 GB
  • 5-megapixel camera supporting 720p high-definition video capture
  • Dual-band (2.5- and 5GHz) 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Near field communications (NFC) for device accessories, mobile payments and other potential uses
  • Depending on the model, support for HSPA+ data networks or CDMA/EVDO with GSM voice.

The new handset internals are paired with the improved BlackBerry OS 7, but this software is not based on QNX, which RIM uses to power its PlayBook tablet. RIM has said it will transition its smartphones to the new QNX system in the future. For now, however, new Bold owners will make do with BlackBerry OS 7, which includes a number of performance and interface improvements as well as a faster Webkit web browser that now supports HTML5 video. The update platform also includes BlackBerry Balance, software that separates personal and enterprise data while maintaining the security and I.T. polices on the latter.

BlackBerry’s PlayBook tablet also gets a little better with news today of a dedicated Facebook application and support for video chat. The software brings one-touch video calls or voice chat, incoming call notifications and support for both the front- and rear-facing camera of the PlayBook. At least initially, the video calling feature will be limited to calls between PlayBook tablets, although once RIM transitions to QNX for smartphones, the feature could extend to those devices as well.

While I had hoped to see new phones already using the new QNX operating system running the company’s tablet, the two new handsets compare reasonably well to other smartphones in terms of hardware. But if RIM wanted to make a stronger statement, it might have brought QNX to these new handsets As it stands now, these appear to be more of a transitional product while the QNX effort continues. With the advanced hardware, RIM looks to be buying time until QNX arrives on phones and unifies the platform between handsets and the PlayBook tablet.

The addition of the Facebook app on the PlayBook, however is promising and hopefully the start of some top-tier software titles arriving on the device. Based on my usage, the PlayBook has a solid foundation to build upon as there’s much to like, but consumers crave apps, so RIM still has work to do to get third-party software available for the PlayBook. Between the new Bold devices and a few improvements to the PlayBook, it’s clearRIM is taking a measured approach to take on competitors. Such a strategy could work well if RIM continues to deliver improvements on a regular basis, as the smartphone market is fast changing.

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