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BlackBerry 8800 -- a grown-up Pearl

BlackBerry this week rolled out the 8800, a smartphone bearing striking similarities to the Pearl -- but for a more grown-up audience.

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) released its latest smartphone, the BlackBerry 8800, a device that takes design cues from the slick Pearl and better positions RIM to rival other sleek devices.

BlackBerry 8800

 At the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, RIM debuted the feature-rich smartphone, already touted as the thinnest BlackBerry to date -- measuring 0.55 inches front to back -- compared with the already-thin Pearl's 0.57 inches. The 8800 mimics the Pearl with its trackball navigator, replacing the side-mounted track wheel of older BlackBerry models. And though it is somewhat similar in appearance to the Pearl, the 8800 uses a full QWERTY keyboard instead of SureType.

Mobile device experts have called it a Pearl for a more mature set of users.

"The 8800 is the grown-up version of the Pearl," said Current Analysis' Avi Greengart, moments after using the device. "The full QWERTY keyboard has a wonderful feel to it, and though the unit is rather wide, it is fairly comfortable to hold as a phone because it is thin and the edges are rounded off."

That grown-up but still sleek design could bring some new BlackBerry users out of the woodwork -- people who were once turned off by the bulky form factor of past BlackBerrys but weren't quite ready for the Pearl, which can be considered as much fashion accessory as business tool. The 8800 also has a larger, high-resolution screen, which RIM said is better for viewing emails, applications, attachments, pictures, video, Web pages and games.

"Well, this is the QWERTY Pearl," said Jack Gold, president and founder of J.Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research and advisory firm. "This will appeal to those users who don't like the SureType and prefer a full keyboard, like lots of corporate types that use email, and especially those that use applications -- where a keyboard and bigger screen are important."

RIM also trumpeted the 8800's built-in GPS capabilities, its multimedia features and a microSD expandable memory slot. The 8800 is quad-band GSM.GPRS and EDGE-enabled. As a phone, it features noise cancellation, speaker-independent voice recognition for voice activated dialing, and call management functions like smart dialing, conferencing calling, speed dialing and call forwarding. The device also supports speakerphone and Bluetooth 2.0.

In a statement, RIM president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said, "The BlackBerry 8800 smartphone offers another winning combination of superior hardware, software and service embodied by an extremely elegant industrial design. We spent a tremendous amount of effort refining the BlackBerry 8800, inside and out, and that effort will be evident to customers. From the premium finish to the vivid screen to the exceptional sound quality and the unmatched usability, the BlackBerry 8800 is a standout choice for mobile professionals."

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 Like the Pearl, the BlackBerry 8800 includes media capabilities such as an MP3 player and video capabilities. Unlike the Pearl, the 8800 does not have a camera.

"While it doesn't have a camera, it does have a media player and removable memory," Greengart said.

At first, the 8800 will run on AT&T's Cingular network in the U.S. It can operate with BlackBerry Internet Service, which allows users to manage up to 10 email addresses, and it also operates on the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which allows for IT controls for managing the smartphone's features and usage.

Greengart said the BlackBerry 8800 may, in some cases, compete directly against RIM's own Pearl, but that isn't all bad.

"Even if they are competing with themselves, that's not necessarily a bad thing," he said. "The cosmetics, form factor and user interface all run rings around the classic 700 series and should drive some serious upgrades. At the same time, an attractive, easier-to-use BlackBerry could attract new users who didn't want to carry around even the 8700."

Gold agreed.

"[The Pearl] may take a slight hit, but I think these devices are complementary and appeal to different users, just like the older 8700 and 7100 did," he said. "Those who want the smallest, lightest device will go with the current Pearl, and those who want a bigger screen and keyboard will buy the new devices. There is certainly room in the market for both."

There is also room in the market for RIM to take over in the slick smartphone arena, Gold said. The BlackBerry 8800 may help RIM better stick it to the competition, making the 8800 and the Pearl a one-two punch against Nokia, Palm and Motorola.

"This device will be a heavy competitor to devices like the Q from Motorola and the new Treos from Palm," Gold said. "I think this will definitely appeal to BlackBerry users who want to upgrade to slicker devices than the older bricks they currently carry around, and will put pressure on the competition -- Nokia, Palm, Moto."

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