BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has finally launched its first touch-screen phone. The BlackBerry Storm's large screen firmly pits it against the iPhone, with keyboard twists that hark back to the BlackBerry's strength.
RIM has worked hard to elevate the touch-screen keyboard from purely virtual, trying to better the software version that can frustrate avid messengers on the iPhone. The Storm's software keys respond with a hardware "click" that the company says feels like a hardware keyboard.
The thumb-typing keyboard, after all, helped make the BlackBerry an immense success. And it was hard keys that drew many customers back to their BlackBerry after a brief affair with the iPhone and other touch-screen phones.
RIM didn't stop with clicks in trying to enhance the software keys. The Storm offers not one but two virtual keyboards. One is in full QWERTY style as with most of its phones, and another is a smaller keyboard with bigger keys that double up on letters. The second version uses SureType software to guess, from context, which letter you want. The software is borrowed from the BlackBerry Pearl, whose keypad was an early RIM departure from a full keyboard.
The Storm looks to be an attractive phone with a full suite of features, from the two-finger touch capability that the iPhone first made famous to rich multimedia software. But it's hard to imagine that RIM, whose BlackBerry software I've always found more awkward than slick, can match the iPhone's intuitive interface.
So, RIM was smart to keep a grip on the keyboard, at least as much as a touch-screen would allow.