Rivals seek to beat iPhone by offering two keyboards

Carriers defy iPhone and release Droid 2, Torch 9800 and soon the Epic 4G, with touchscreens and physical keyboards

Motorola Droid 2 smartphone
The Motorola Droid 2 smartphone

Droid 2, an Android smartphone, which Verizon Wireless put on sale on Thursday, is a prime example of how major U.S. wireless carriers are trying to broaden the appeal of smartphones to business users and consumers alike by offering devices that have both touchscreens and physical keyboards.

For its part, AT&T last week put on sale the new BlackBerry Torch 9800, which has a more traditional keyboard that slides out beneath a touchscreen. And on Aug. 31, Sprint will debut the Samsung Epic 4G, which features a horizontal slideout keyboard beneath a touchscreen. The Epic 4G will sell for $250, which is $50 more than the price of the Torch and Droid 2 after rebates.

torch_opened_338.jpg
RIM's BlackBerry Torch 9800

All three of these new smartphones defy what the hugely successful Apple iPhone has done with its touchscreen-only keyboard.

"It is incumbent on carriers to offer alternatives to soft-keyboard-only devices like iPhone," said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J.Gold Associates. "I think that is what you are seeing with Droid 2, Torch, Epic, etc. I am not at all surprised that carriers want to make sure they offer the maximum choice to provide optimum devices for their customers, particularly since they want to keep all customers happy and avoid churn."

To promote Droid 2's usefulness to business users, Verizon Wireless, Google and phone maker Motorola have launched a slick TV ad called "Digits." The ad depicts a young worker in a board room flipping open a Droid 2's keyboard and then typing with robotic fingers at lightning speed on a "more intuitive keyboard" that transforms him "into an instrument of efficiency."

The Samsung Epic 4G smartphone
The Samsung Epic 4G smartphone

All of the major carriers have tried for years to develop a large portfolio of phones to appeal to different user groups. But with these three phones, they seem to be trying to fill a single device with enough features to address the widest range of user needs.

Among other things, they're acknowledging that the young people who have been such avid users of texting for the past several years are now out of college and in the work force.

For example, Blackberry maker Research In Motion seems to have recognized that while its products resonated with an entrenched group of business users for years before texting became popular, it's now time to offer a BlackBerry for a new generation. So with a new touchscreen and an updated operating system, RIM's new BlackBerry Torch 9800 offers more than the traditional physical keyboard of its predecessors.

So far, Droid 2 has been the most heavily marketed of the new wave of iPhone challengers. In an example of how Google, Motorola and Verizon want to make sure they reach as broad a market as possible, they are releasing an R2-D2 limited edition version of Droid 2 that's designed to appeal to fans of the Star Wars film saga. A Verizon spokeswoman on Friday wouldn't confirm a shipment date, except to say it will be available online in September.

Photos from the Star Wars Celebration V conference in Orlando showed a preview of the R2-D2 smartphone, along with a sign saying it would be available Sept. 30. Engadget and other sites ran a photo of the sign with the date and a photo of the preview device.

Some observers have said they wished the special edition model looked more like the droid from the movies, but they also conceded that they would probably buy one if the price was right. Verizon hasn't divulged the price, however.

There appear to be plenty of Torch and Droid 2 devices available so far, based on spot checks of AT&T and Verizon stores and Web sites. Sprint said it has delayed a planned mid-August release of the Epic to build up a stockpile in light of a global display screen shortage.

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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