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RIM Fires Back With 8800

In its first major product release since the iPhone from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) debuted last month, BlackBerry has unveiled the BlackBerry 8800, which many observers have termed a grown-up version of the Pearl, the sleek, consumer-oriented BlackBerry that has been the most successful product launch in company history since it came out last September.

With its larger, high-resolution screen and email friendly features, the 8800 is clearly meant to be a compromise between the consumer-friendly design of the Pearl and the business-oriented features of traditional RIM devices, such as the BlackBerry 8700.

"This will make the 8800 class of devices much more palatable to enterprise users," says Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at the Info-Tech Research Group. He says users have been hesitant to switch to the narrower Pearl because of its keyboard.

At just under 14 mm, the 8800 is slimmer than the nearly 14.5 mm Pearl, and it has a full QWERTY keyboard as opposed to the Pearl's numeric SureType keypad. The new device also features a built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) that will give users access to the range of location-based services forthcoming from carriers. Like the Pearl, it has a trackball rather than the trackwheel of previous BlackBerry models; unlike the Pearl, it does not have a camera. (See RIM Polishes Its Pearl.)

RIM vice president of corporate marketing Mark Guibert says the company is trying to broaden its product line to appeal to a wider range of users.

"We've shown in these last two introductions a new style and new degree of integration and finish on the products that is going to appeal to a much broader set of customers than we've seen in the past."

At the same time, Guibert adds, the 8800 is designed to attract current BlackBerry-using businesspeople who will want to upgrade to a sleeker form factor. (See RIM Lines Up iPhone Defenses.)

Inevitably, the new BlackBerry will be compared to the iPhone, which Steve Jobs unveiled with great fanfare at the MacWorld show in San Francisco on January 9. In essence, however, the two devices are aimed at very different markets: The iPhone will likely be most popular with trend-conscious consumers to whom price is no object, while the 8800 is targeted at mobile professionals. (See Apple Makes iPhone Call.)

"What RIM has always been good at is competing in the marketplace as opposed to on paper or in the media," Guibert comments, in a dig at Apple's hype. "But it’s a big market, there'll be a billion phones sold this year, and it's a highly fragmented market -- it's not a zero-sum game.

Later this year RIM -- which saw its share price drop by nearly 15 percent in the days after the iPhone launch but has enjoyed a healthy recovery since -- is expected to unveil the 9000 series. A full 3G device that runs on Cingular's HSDPA network, the 9000 will likely be the first device to display a newly designed user interface from RIM.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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