While BlackBerry remains the U.S. leader in smartphone market share, it is under intense pressure from Apple iPhone and Google Android. On Monday night The Wall Street Journal reported that BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion is prepping two new devices to keep BlackBerry from being engulfed by the momentum of Android and iPhone.

The Journal wrote:

“RIM is testing a touch-screen smartphone with a slide-out keyboard, according to people familiar with the device. The phone runs on a new version of the BlackBerry operating system and works much like an iPhone… RIM is also experimenting with a tablet device to serve as a larger-screen companion to its BlackBerry phone, say people familiar with RIM’s plans. That device, which is in an early stage of development, will connect to cellular networks via a BlackBerry phone, these people say. It could come out as soon as the end of the year.”

The most interesting thing here is that this report appears to confirm rumors about the BlackBerry 9800 slider and the Palm Folio-like BlackBerry tablet that were leaked by sites like Boy Genius Report and Engadget in recent months. The photos below claiming to be the BlackBerry 9800 were leaked by a Chinese site and then picked up by various U.S. message boards and blogs.

Of course, BGR and Engadget are in the business of publishing rumors and so they have a lower threshold of veracity. The Journal will typically only publish a report like this if it has multiple reputable sources to confirm it, so that make this a little more likely. Nevertheless, RIM has refused to verify the report so it’s likely that the future is still in motion here, especially in relation to the tablet.

Sanity check

Here are my thoughts about this report:

  1. RIM announced BlackBerry OS 6.0 in April at WES 2010 with a video that showed off a new touchscreen interface. The company also said that OS 6.0 would arrive in the third quarter. Interestingly enough, the size of the screen displayed in that video looks like it fits with the screen size of the supposed BlackBerry 9800 photos above. In other words, all signs point to the arrival of the BlackBerry 9800 slider or a similar device running OS 6.0 before the end of the summer.
  2. If RIM were to come to market at the end of 2010 with a touchscreen tablet that was not a stand-alone computing device but rather a large screen BlackBerry companion, it would be an extremely risky move. Palm had developed a similar product in the Palm Folio but torpedoed it before it ever got released. Others such as Redfly have tried and failed to make the concept work. RIM would be much better off just using BlackBerry OS 6.0 to build a stand-alone tablet tailored for its primary business professional demographic.
  3. The idea of building a touchscreen BlackBerry with a full QWERTY slider is another risky move that would put BlackBerry a step behind iPhone and Android because RIM would be trying to serve two masters. By making a keyboard that slides from the bottom (rather than the side, like the Motorola Droid), the rumored BlackBerry 9800 would naturally have to limit the size of its screen. While the tepid response to the BlackBerry Storm may have led RIM down this path, a combo device isn’t the answer. The company should just build a better touchscreen smartphone, and still develop a line of great QWERTY smartphones for those enterprise users who prefer a hardware keyboard.