Well, today is Blackberry Storm launch day. But before you run down to your local Verizon store (the only source of the Storm), I suggest you read this.
The Storm is Research In Motion's first shot at a full screen smartphone. Apple rocked the world 18 months ago with the iPhone, a device that dispensed with an ordinary tactile keyboard in favor of a screen that covers most of the face of the device. Presumably, RIM felt they had to respond.
The virtue of the full-screen approach is that you get a larger screen (e.g. the Blackberry Storm screen is about 50% bigger -- measuring 3.3" diagonally, while the keyboard-based Blackberry 8150 measures 2.4"). A larger screen is a real benefit for a key usage of 3G smartphones: surfing the web. With a tiny screen, you just can't see much of anything on web pages. With larger full-screen phones you can almost see things, and when you zoom or expand then sites are actually usable.
The problem with full-screen phones is the keyboard. Apple had to resort to a virtual keyboard on the iPhone in which pictures of keys are shown on the screen. You touch the screen and it records your keystroke. The problem is that the keys tend to be small and it is easy to miss. Because it takes only the lightest touch to activate a key, mistakes are part of the deal as is lots of editing. Writing "hos mow brlwn coe" and other bizzare phrases becomes common. If you are occasionally entering a URL for the web, you can live with this. If you write lots of emails on your phone each day, this just gets old quickly.
RIM as you may recall is more or less the inventor of workable email on phones. So, naturally they viewed the iPhone approach as unacceptable. The Blackberry Storm is RIMs attempt to solve this problem while retaining the advantages of a big screen.
The Storm has a large touch screen, like the iPhone. But unlike the iPhone, the screen is also basically one huge mechanical key. When your finger touches a key or a menu item, the item is highlighted in blue. To activate the key or menu item you press firmly on the screen and, just like a computer keyboard, the screen depresses a bit and registers your selection. The Storm separates the "choose" and "register" actions of typing and cursor movement much more clearly than a standard touch screen.
Does it work? Well so far I'd say "sort of". Mistakes with the Storm are (slightly) less common than on the iPhone. But I haven't (yet at least) evolved my usage to the point that the Storm feels fluid. Pressing the screen takes some deliberate force and selecting the key takes almost as much care as with the iPhone. This deliberate approach slows you down, which helps with getting the letters right. But slow is still slow. The slowness is amplified because the force required to register a keystoke differs from the center of the screen to the edge. It is hard to get the typing action down when each key requires different input. I'm probably 3X as fast typing on a regular Blackberry keyboard as I am on a iPhone. I'm probably 1.5 times as fast typing on the Storm as I am on the iPhone.
That speed gain might be worthwhile if the rest of the Storm were as fluid and intuitive as the iPhone. But it isn't. The Storm's software doesn't seem nearly as "aware" of what you are doing as the iPhone's software is. For example, when you are entering an email address, the Storm forces you to hit the num shift key to get the "@" symbol. What email address doesn't use an "@" symbol? Similarly, when entering a zip code in the navigation software, the Storm makes you hit "num shift" to acess the numeric keyboard before entering each number. But what zip code consists of letters (yes, I know RIM is a Canadian company and Canadian postal codes have letters, but this is a US phone from Verizon)? As a final example, the Storm doesn't allow for the fact that most URLs end in ".com" so a special .com key isn't provided. The iPhone addresses these issues.
Don't get me wrong. The Storm isn't a bad smart phone, in concept. As executed though, I can't imagine anyone choosing it. If you really use a lot of email, I'd stick with a mechanical keyboard version of a Blackberry. If email is a once-in-a-while deal, and you surf the web a lot, the iPhone is your choice. If you want both, the Storm will work, but it is compromised in doing all those things. A better solution is a phone with a full-size screen and a slide-out mechanical keyboard. That will be a little thicker, but at least you won't want to hurl it against the wall from time to time.