AT&T, Sprint unveil plans to sell new Blackberry smartphones

New models of RIM BlackBerry 7-based smartphones slated to ship this year; pricing not disclosed

The new 4G BlackBerry Torch 9810. AT&T and Sprint Wednesday separately announced plans to sell new BlackBerry smartphones are slated to hit the market by year's end.

Each of the five new models will run the new BlackBerry 7 OS rather than the much-anticipated QNX software slated for a 2012 debut.

BlackBerry developer Research in Motion said two new BlackBerry Bold smartphones and three new BlackBerry Torch models will eventually go to hundreds of carriers globally.

AT&T said it will sell three BlackBerry smartphone models and Sprint announced plans to sell two.

Pricing was not announced on any of the five models.

AT&T's new phones include a second-generation 4G BlackBerry Torch 9810 with a vertical slide-out Qwerty keyboard. The device will be available later this month.

The carrier said it will also sell the 4G BlackBerry Bold 9900 and the 4G BlackBerry Torch 9860, which has a touchscreen and no Qwerty keyboard. The Torch 9860 is viewed as RIM's replacement for the lackluster full-touchscreen BlackBerry Storm that first launched in 2008 to take on Apple's iPhone.

Sprint's two new BlackBerry devices are similar AT&T's Bold 9900 and Torch 9860, but with slightly different model numbers. Sprint's BlackBerry Bold 9930 and BlackBerry Torch 9850 devices will ship sometime this fall, the carrier said.

The announcement of plans to sell five new BlackBerry smartphone models was seen by analysts as a show of faith by the carriers in ailing Research in Motion.

RIM has delayed launching new phones in recent months and has seen its stock tumble nearly 70% in the past year, reaching $24.15 at yesterday's close. RIM in July also announced plans to lay off 2,000 workers.

While the five new models all run the latest BlackBerry 7 OS, many industry don't expect a significant boost to RIM sales until the new QNX operating system is released.

RIM had been the leading smartphone maker for years, especially for business users, but over the last couple of years, the iPhone and Google Android-based devices have pushed RIM into third place in the U.S.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, wondered whether RIM's latest BlackBerry 7 smartphone releases are enough to win customer and investor confidence. "The question is: Will this be enough for [RIM] to stem the tide of defections or generate a refresh cycle for existing BlackBerry users?" he said. "If the performance is, as stated, much snappier, it should help them."

Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC, said the new devices "won't turn the tide completely but will slow the decline" for RIM. "Unfortunately, they have much the same look and feel as earlier devices and RIM's app store hasn't taken off."

RIM's smartphones are often seen as "workhorses," Llamas added. "You won't associate the word 'sexy' with BlackBerry."

Llamas said he could see a browser improvement between BlackBerry 7 and the older BlackBerry 5 OS, though he added that the BlackBerry 7 browser is "not substantially better than [version] 6 or 6.1."

AT&T and RIM released a comparison chart showing that the new BlackBerry 7 smartphones can browse up to 40% faster than BlackBerry 6-based devices and 100% faster than BlackBerry 5 smartphones.

AT&T also boasted four times faster wireless transfers over 4G than 3G. AT&T's 4G network refers to HSPA+ which when available can exceed 12 Mbps download speeds.

AT&T also released some specifications ( download PDF ) for the Torch 9810, showing that its 1.2 GHz processor offers twice the performance of the first generation Torch 9800.

The 9810's liquid graphics display is 480 x 640 and it runs with 8 GB of internal storage, twice the predecessor.

The coming Torch 9860 will be AT&T's first full-touch BlackBerry and the Torch 9850 will be Sprint's first full-touch BlackBerry. Both are nearly identical and are seen as replacements for the BlackBerry Storm that was criticized for dull touch sensitivity as well as for the older, slower BlackBerry browser.

"The Storm replacement might help RIM if the device finally performs well," Gold said.

Gold called the Bold devices "premium business user phones" and Sprint said the Bold 9930 is the thinnest smartphone ever at 10.5 mm thick.

In addition to a range of business-focused features, the Bold 9930 will have Near-Field Communication support for exchanging information between NFC ready devices. Sprint has emerged as the only U.S. carrier working with Google, Citi and MasterCard on the Google Wallet concept that is expected to launch on NFC-ready phones to enable purchases.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen , or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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