Tech Watch: Who's Afraid of the Touchscreen BlackBerry?

Gadget nuts everywhere await the arrival of RIM's first touchscreen device. Will the Storm be a bellwether device, or just another flavor of BlackBerry?

On Thursday, RIM and Verizon announced the details of their forthcoming touchscreen BlackBerry 9530, dubbed the Storm. Before getting into its feature-set and specs, here's the straight dope: it'll cost you $200 from Verizon when you sign up for a two-year voice and data plan, and it'll be available nationwide on November 21.

It's worth noting, however, that there is a $35 activation charge, and that $200 price tag includes a mail-in rebate. Also, if you get a voice without data plan, then you really have no business getting the Storm – and you'll be duly punished by Verizon by paying double for the device. Plan to pay about $285 plus tax at the register, all told.

The Storm's natural competitors, the Google-powered G1 device from T-Mobile and Apple's iPhone 3G, are priced in the same neighborhood, ringing up at about $180 and $200 with 2-year contracts, respectively. No doubt they're waiting observantly, wondering just how disruptive the Storm might be.

RIM has never done a touch-activated device before, and the wily Canadians have clearly put some thought into the 9530's execution. The 3.25-inch, 480x360 screen includes tactile feedback meant to give users the sensation of "clicking" a physical button, and it also supports multi-touch gestures. Like the iPhone, with which it shares almost exactly similar physical dimensions, the Storm contains an accelerometer that switches the screen from portrait to landscape mode when you turn it sideways. It handily one-ups the iPhone in the camera department, though, with a 3.2MP sensor that supports geo-tagging and records video with sound. The iPhone sports a mediocre 2MP camera that only takes still shots; the G1 sports a 3.2MP camera, but without video capture.

The integrated media player software can pump your jams through a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and location-based apps will benefit from a GPS chip. There's also cut-and-paste functionality, so editing Word and Excel docs on the fly should be a breeze – the iPhone can't do this. Nor does the iPhone have an SD card slot like the Storm, or cross-network world-phone capabilities like the Storm.

Verizon and RIM have ramped up a massive advertising campaign aimed at poaching smartphone buyers from their rivals come next week. But they'll have a couple of major stumbling blocks to overcome.

Egregiously, the Storm has no WiFi. This is 2008; even crappy digital picture frames have WiFi these days, and since most digital picture frames seem to be purchased to dazzle tech-illiterate grandmas, it's fair to say that even your grandma has WiFi. But not the Storm. Other BlackBerrys – albeit on T-Mobile – can even use their WiFi magic to make VOIP calls and save mobile minutes. True to form, Verizon apparently wants to hamstring what promises to be one of the most capable phones of the year.

While it will be an otherwise capable device, the Storm also packs the potential for a debilitating monthly bill: voice and data packages start steep at $80, and jump to $130 for unlimited voice and data. Text messaging bumps that fee up to $150 a month. Both AT&T and T-Mobile have a more economical price structure, which obviously won't matter to enterprise users, but may chill wide consumer adoption.

RIM also bears the onus of building out an application marketplace like Apple's and Google's, which will be no small feat with many smartphone developers already knee-deep in the iPhone and Android SDKs. That said, early reports on the Storm's user interface are positive, and there could be an untapped niche of buyers sick of the ubiquity of the iPhone and the inelegance of pop-out keyboards like the G1's.

Look for our in-depth review of the Storm on Thursday, November 20.

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