Small crowd waits for BlackBerry Tour; most like it better than touch-screen devices

One user said excitement about the Tour is diminished by growing monthly carrier fees

Fifteen people waited outside a suburban Boston Verizon Wireless store for up to two hours early Sunday morning to buy a new BlackBerry Tour smartphone.

Several of those waiting for the 10 a.m. opening of the Natick, Mass., store said the Tour model is attractive because it has a physical QWERTY keyboard and is made by a well-known company -- Research In Motion Ltd.

The Tour, considered by many to be a slight upgrade from RIM's BlackBerry Curve or the Bold models, went on sale for $200 with a two-year agreement from Verizon or Sprint Nextel Corp. and a rebate.

At the Verizon Wireless store, Al Ferrer proudly showed his new Tour side-by-side with an older BlackBerry Bold, which he uses with AT&T's network. "The Tour is a little smaller, see?" he said. "It's little. Cute, eh?"

Ferrer, a nuclear and mechanical engineer, qualifies as a power user of smartphones, and he demonstrated that he is familiar with many of them. A Wellesley, Mass., resident, he regularly travels all over the globe for work, and he considers making calls and monitoring e-mail on his smartphone "critical" to his day-to-day chores.

The heavy number-crunching and PowerPoint and Excel tasks he must do are almost all handled on a Dell laptop, which Ferrer said he still needs on longer trips. But he is looking to reduce the number of handheld devices he has to carry.

Ferrer's Tour will replace an older Motorola Razr. He will keep his Bold smartphone, which uses the AT&T network, to make sure he doesn't miss out on a call or a data connection. "With both, I'm pretty sure not to miss anything," he said.

Ferrer and his son, Andrew Ferrer, who also purchased a new Tour yesterday, smirked at the idea of buying a BlackBerry Storm or Apple Inc. iPhone, which have touch screens. "A touch-screen phone is a nice idea, but they haven't perfected it," Al Ferrer said. "I have small hands and big fingers, and it's hard to use it for typing."

Andrew Ferrer, an attorney, added, "Getting a physical keyboard was critical for me."

Both men also own iPod Touch devices, but they said that they don't like how the Apple device responds to their touch.

Several other customers agreed with the Ferrers' sentiment about touch screens.

Lacey Cumming, a student at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., was one of the first to arrive at the store to make sure she could get a new Tour to replace her Curve. She said she had tried a Storm for two weeks and returned it.

"I didn't like the Storm," Cumming said. "It was too slow and didn't react to my touch well." Cumming, 19, said that she has had eight different phones in her lifetime, but she still relies on an HP laptop required by her school for most of her intense browsing and school chores. The Tour will be a convenient way to text friends and do casual browsing, she added.

She showed off her accessories, including a screen protector and a bright pink protective skin that was the only color she liked; the only other choices were blue and clear.

If anything, the Sunday customers at the Verizon store showed how intensely personal a smartphone can be, right up there with precious jewelry.

David Peters, also of Wellesley, said he bought the Tour to use as he travels globally for his marketing and sales job. He was once a Curve user on the T-Mobile USA network; he first got on T-Mobile because its network reach seemed to be very good outside of the U.S. "But I am transferring to Verizon because T-Mobile service sucks here," he said. T-Mobile USA's parent is Bonn, Germany-based Deutsche Telekom AG, which explains its reliability abroad, he reasoned.

Peters said he avoided the Storm "because my colleagues said it was hard to use the touch screen and difficult to use the buttons."

Sharon Decker, manager of the Natick Verizon store, said that while the early turnout of 15 people for the Tour was robust, it was about one-fourth the number that showed up in November for the BlackBerry Storm debut at another Boston-area Verizon store that she was managing at the time. And hundreds of people lined up outside the downtown Boston Apple store for the debuts of each of the last two iPhone models, showing that there are obviously still many touch screen enthusiasts.

For the Ferrers, the purchase of two Tours was a chance to reflect on the future cost of monthly cellular services. Al Ferrer said he currently puts himself and three other family members on the same Verizon account for about $350 a month, which includes the phones and AT&T's service. He gets reimbursed for his business costs, which add up to about $150 a month, he said.

But down the road he said he hopes to contain his costs, and he's in the process of eliminating his home's land line phone to help do that. He's a realist though, and he recognizes that subscription fees will keep going up.

"I could handle some increases in monthly charges, but $500 would be too much," he said. Maybe the carriers could find a way to offer free tethering of his smartphone to his laptop so he could eliminate the cost of a broadband laptop card, which can be more than $60 a month. "Something has to give," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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