RIM fights for BlackBerry relevance

Research in Motion rattled off a slew of product updates at its Blackberry World conference Monday, including two new Bold smartphones, the Blackberry 7 OS, and a couple of key apps for the Blackberry Playbook tablet.

These aren’t game-changing announcements. I don’t see anything among RIM’s press releases that will catapult Blackberry over the iPhone and Android in the smartphone and tablet wars, but they should help RIM hang on to some relevance as it ceases to dominate the smartphone market.

Here’s what’s new with RIM’s Blackberry products:

Blackberry Bold 9900 and 9930

The Bold 9900 and 9930 are the thinnest (10.5 mm, about .4 of an inch) and most powerful (with 1.2 GHz processors) yet from RIM, which opened its biggest annual conference in Orlando on Monday. RIM officials promised more NFC phones at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. These devices will be the first smartphones to run BlackBerry 7 OS.

Pricing was not announced, but both smartphones are due from carriers globally this summer. Prospective buyers can register for more information on RIM’s Web site .

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Both Bold smartphones have 2.8-in. touchscreens as well as physical Qwerty keyboards with optical trackpads. They run 1.2 GHz processors and weigh about 130 grams (4.5 ounces). The phones are built for easy data storage , with 8 GB internal and a microSD slot that can support a card of up to 32 GB.

A 5-megapixel camera in each supports 720p HD videorecording. The 9900 is a tri-band phone for HSPA+ and GSM/EDGE, while the 9930 is a Dual Bank CDMA/EV-DO Rev. A, Dual Bank HSPA+ and Quad Bank GSM/EDGE device.

Blackberry 7 OS

RIM’s Blackberry 7 OS doesn’t merge with QNX, the operating system that runs on the Blackberry tablet. Instead, Blackberry 7 OS adds some basic improvements like voice-activated search and a faster, smoother Web browser with HTML 5 support.

Engadget reports that only new phones will get Blackberry 7 OS, leaving the relatively new Blackberry Torch out in the cold.

The new BlackBerry 7 OS is designed for an easier and faster user experience with improved browsing, voice searches and the ability to manage a user’s personal content separate from the user’s corporate content.

RIM has previously described this separation of personal and business-related content as an effective means of allowing IT managers to easily strip off corporate content from the smartphone if the employee departs the company, leaving all the personal photos and music intact for the user to keep.

BlackBerry 7 also gives users a full version of Docs to Go for using Word, Excel and PowerPoint files directly on the smartphone.

Browsing on BlackBerry devices has long been a big disappointment for most users and RIM claimed the service has been enhanced in BlackBerry 7 with faster rendering and improved panning and zooming. It also has a just-in-time JavaScript compiler to improve the load time for Web pages. The browser also has support for HTML5, including HTML5 video.

Facebook and Video Chat for Playbook

The Blackberry Playbook will soon be getting a couple apps that should’ve been available at launch. Video Chat, which will be delivered in an over-the-air update on May 3, lets Playbook owners talk to one another using the tablet’s front- and rear-facing cameras.

Still no word on cross-platform video chat apps, such as Fring and Skype. A Facebook app for Blackberry Playbook will be available through App World some time this month, with the requisite news feeds, wall posts, photos, videos and chat.

Blackberry Balance

Here’s a nice feature for IT pros who worry about the infiltration of consumer tech in the enterprise: Blackberry Balance is a service that tries to separate business and personal uses on Blackberry smartphones.

When activated, it prevents users from copying, sending or using business data in personal applications, and tells the user when an action is against IT policy. If the user leaves the company, Balance lets the administrator remotely wipe all business information while leaving personal information and apps intact.

iPhone and Android Management

Perhaps the most surprising news out of Blackberry World was the announcement of a Web-based management tool for IT administrators that supports Android and iPhone in addition to Blackberry phones. This allows administrators to activate, wipe, lock, or otherwise manage phones over the air, while also accessing features that are exclusive to Blackberry, such as the aforementioned Blackberry Balance. Implicit in the announcement is an admission that Blackberry no longer dominates the enterprise, and that giving administrators a way to manage iPhones and Androids is a must.

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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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