RIM Spikes BlackBerry’s Punch With WiFi

The newest — and thinnest — BlackBerry smartphone from Research In Motion (RIM) includes GPS (Global Positioning System), new media player enhancements, an expandable memory slot and the ability to connect to the Internet via WiFi.

The BlackBerry 8820’s multiple methods of connectivity are “unprecedented,” for a RIM smartphone, said RIM President Mike Lazaridis in announcing the device. As the first dual-mode BlackBerry, it combines EDGE/GPRS/GSM (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution/General Packet Radio Service/Global System for Mobile communications) cellular operation with WiFi connectivity. The 8820 offers supports UMA (unlicensed mobile access), meaning it can switch voice calls between a cellular network and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) over the WiFi connection.

The 8820 is thinner than any other BlackBerry device and includes a “highly tactile” QWERTY keyboard as well as a 320 x 240 display, a trackball navigation system, a microSD/microSDHC (high capacity) expandable memory slot and Bluetooth, the company said.

RIM is not saying what the new unit will cost. The 8820 is expected to become available in the U.S. through AT&T “later this summer,” it said.

Secure Communication

For business people whose companies allow remote access to a corporate virtual private network (VPN), the 8820 includes Internet Protocol Security (IPSec)-based software. Other security features include WEP (Wireless Equivalency Protocol), WPA (WiFi Protected Access), WPA2 and Cisco Compatible Extensions.

Because it is quad-band, the new smartphone will work nearly anywhere, noted RIM. The unit is equipped with “advanced noise cancellation for enhanced audio performance,” the company said. Other phone features include speaker independent voice recognition for voice activated dialing, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dialing and call forwarding. The 8820 supports polyphonic, mp3 and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) ringtones.

The 8820’s built-in GPS will work with many location applications and services including BlackBerry Maps, said RIM. When used with the BlackBerry Internet Service, the 8820 will provide users with up to 10 personal and corporate e-mail accounts and the BlackBerry Enterprise Server enables security and IT administration functions in environments that include IBM Lotus Notes and Domino, Microsoft Exchange and Novell GroupWise.

Thanks for the Memory

The device’s memory slot will support memory cards up to 32 GB in capacity. Currently, only 4 GB cards are available but the company said 8 GB versions should be on the market later this year.

Although BlackBerry is now an old brand in a world dazzled by the new Apple iPhone, the 8820 demonstrates RIM is still a player, said Chris Ambrosio, wireless device analyst for Strategy Analytics.

“The 8820 launch shows that Research In Motion is proving very capable in continuing to expand the media feature and design appeal of their product line,” Ambrosio told TechNewsWorld. He pointed out the 8820’s support of UMA, which “means that users will be able to seamlessly switch between cellular calls and VoIP calls where UMA services are available.”

Riding the WiFi Wave

The device’s WiFi capability comes right on time, as Strategy Analytics believes WiFi functionality is quickly becoming standard fare on smartphones, said Ambrosio. “We are expecting that 20 million WLAN (wireless local area network) enabled handsets will be sold this year and that the large majority of these will be smartphones,” he commented. “We are not seeing, however, that the demand for VoIP or web browsing is driving this growth. WLAN to date has proven to be more of a value-added “checkbox” feature on smartphones more than anything else.”

Ambrosio believes that will change over the next few years “and, as usual with new technologies, business and techno-centric users will be the early users of the technology.”

The 8820 is clearly a business-centric smartphone. RIM noted the unit’s wireless platform allows the remote deployment of many business applications, including those for “CRM, sales force automation, field services, business intelligence, supply chain management and continuity of operations, as well as a broad range of industry-specific applications for sectors including health care, law enforcement, government, financial services, insurance, pharmaceutical, professional services, real estate, manufacturing, wholesale and retail.”

Comparing Apples and Berries

That’s a significantly different demographic than the playful one targeted by Apple for the iPhone. While the 8820 “comes with a new and powerful desktop media manager — the Roxio Media Manager for BlackBerry” and has a number of other multimedia enhancements, JupiterResearch mobile analyst Neil Strother doesn’t see it as an iPhone challenger.

“Apparently, there’s no camera, so this probably would not appeal to many consumers, and for some professionals, a lack of a camera might be an issue,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Also, given it’s got a QWERTY keyboard, it definitely fits the email-messaging centric type user.”

Strother also found it to be “curious” that the new BlackBerry is not a 3G phone. “So that’s a ‘should have,’ in my mind,” he said. “But with WiFi, that’s one way to get around not having 3G … I’m not sure about the browser on board, which can make or break the browsing experience. But the UMA piece is interesting, letting users jump on WiFi hotspots for voice, if AT&T allows that.”

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