BlackBerry Storm sales should be strong, Verizon says

Despite the sluggish economy, Verizon Wireless Inc. predicts that sales of the BlackBerry Storm will be strong. The device goes on sale Friday for US$200 after rebate. Presale demand has been high, because the touch-screen smart phone from Research In Motion Ltd. has features that will appeal to both consumers and large business users , said Verizon Wireless spokesman Michael Murphy.

"Expectations [for sales] are good, with the run up to now showing huge demand," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Even with the slumping economy expected to hurt holiday sales of consumer electronics, Murphy said overall interest in the smart-phone market generally is "still going well." Verizon set the price of the Storm at $200 (after rebate), a figure that reflects the company's interest in attracting new smart-phone users and consumers. The price is also lower than those of many other smart phones, Murphy and analysts noted. But the Storm should also attract interest from business users who want media functions they can use when they're away from work, he noted.

"Bottom line, this is a device that will let Verizon Wireless and BlackBerry compete directly with the iPhone in this new [smart phone] category," said Jeffrey Kagan, an independent analyst based in Atlanta. "The device looks like a winner based on the initial look."

The Storm is 4.4 by 2.4 by 0.55 inches in size, and it weighs 5.46 oz. It has a 3.2-megapixel camera that can be used to record still images and video. The removable and rechargeable lithium-cell battery provides six hours of talk time and 15 days of standby time. The device also supports Bluetooth 2.0.

Murphy demonstrated a beta version of the Storm for Computerworld Wednesday, showing its ability to function as a device for both business users and consumers. For business users, he showed e-mail and messaging capabilities using a touch-screen keypad in both portrait and landscape views -- capabilities made possible by an accelerometer. He also demonstrated GPS capabilities, including voice-activated driving directions and mapping.

In addition, Murphy pointed out that the Storm uses the familiar BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which provides management and security functions, including the ability to remotely wipe data off a lost machine.

For consumers, Murphy played a video trailer of an action movie that was supported by the Storm's 3.25 in., 480- by 360-pixel display. Murphy noted that the Storm's 3.5mm headphone jack will support stereo headsets, which would be desirable for playing and listening to movies.

However, the beta software loaded on the demonstration unit got hung up twice during his demonstration, making it impossible to turn off a mapping application to return to the home screen. Even over a fast Verizon network connection, the mapping application took seconds to load and to move from screen to screen. Murphy said the shipping version shouldn't have those problems.

Comparisons to Apple Inc.'s iPhone 3G will be inevitable, but Murphy cited three distinctions between the two devices. One is the Storm's SurePress touch-screen technology, which creates a slight movement in the glass screen so that the user can sense that he has touched the display; the iPhone doesn't have such tactile feedback, he said. Second, he pointed out that the Storm's battery is removable but the iPhone's is not; a removable battery is convenient for users who might want a second charged battery to replace the drained one.

Third, he noted that the Storm can be used on a variety of networks, including CDMA and EVDO Rev A in the U.S. and GSM abroad, giving users quick access to Vodafone networks in many countries. All told, the various radios will be supported for voice in 200 countries and data in 150 countries, Murphy said.

Storage onboard the device is 1GB, but the product will ship with an 8GB storage card as well.

Murphy downplayed the fact that the Storm doesn't have support for Wi-Fi, saying that Verizon believes the ubiquity of fast cellular networks will make up the difference. Using himself as an example of a typical business traveler, Murphy said he gets by with an air card over a cellular network on his laptop and a BlackBerry Curve that also operates over cellular. He said he hasn't bothered to use a Wi-Fi hot spot for almost two years.

Some critics disagree with Verizon's view on Wi-Fi support and note that rival AT&T Mobility aims to support both Wi-Fi hot spots (for indoor usage) and fast cellular networks.

Murphy conceded that some users might never get used to a touch screen, especially when it comes to typing e-mail messages. Similar concerns have been aired by a small number of iPhone users. But Verizon sells about 50 different models of cell phones and smart phones, nearly all of which have keypads for typing, he noted.

For example, Verizon also offers the LG Voyager, which has both an external touch screen and a flip-open keypad. It sells for $150 after a $50 mail-in rebate -- that's $50 less than the Storm.

As with most cell phones and smart phones, buyers will evaluate the total cost of ownership, which includes subscription fees for monthly data and voice plans. Verizon is requiring a new two-year contract for the Storm, which starts at $40 a month for 450 minutes of voice service; an e-mail and Web BlackBerry plan carries an additional starting price of $30 a month. Data-only service would cost $50 a month for unlimited personal e-mail and Internet access.

Verizon offers BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) for small business or home business users and others who may not have access to a corporate BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The cost for the service is not any higher than the cost of the plans Verizon provides. The BIS includes access to up to 10 personal and corporate e-mail accounts from a single Storm. A RIM spokeswoman said there will be no added cost for accessing the BlackBerry Enterprise Server from a Storm device, although Murphy said a corporate customer would need to renew an existing corporate account for two years.

The Storm is equipped with DataViz Documents to Go, a suite of tools for editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.

One of the iPhone 3G's big selling points is the availability of thousands of applications that can be easily downloaded from the Apple App Store over a wireless connection.

Murphy said RIM is developing a store for disseminating applications that will be available in the first quarter of 2009. RIM has already distributed a software developer kit to potential developers.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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