BlackBerry: Born Again For the Mass Market

The new version costs just $199 -- and is more like a phone

Research in Motion (RIMM ) started a revolution five years ago when it rolled out the first BlackBerry wireless e-mail device. The BlackBerry keyboard seemed too small to be usable, until you tried it. Thumb-typing became trendy, and truly mobile e-mail was born. Now, RIM, in Waterloo, Ont., has reinvented the BlackBerry, and it's a winner.

The BlackBerry 7100t, which will be available from T-Mobile USA (DT ) in about a month, addresses the two issues that have kept wireless e-mail devices from becoming true mass-market products. At $199, it will be $150 cheaper than the current BlackBerry 7200 series and $250 less than the rival palmOne (PLMO ) Treo 600. Equally important, it looks, feels, and acts more like a phone than any previous BlackBerry.

Until now, the keyboard has kept these products relatively big. The Treo has been the most phone-like, and the 2 1/4-inch width of its keyboard seemed to take the design as far as it could go and maybe a bit further. But the new BlackBerry's keyboard is just 1 7/8 in. wide, and that three-eighths of an inch makes a big difference. At the same time, the keys are closer to the size of those on a standard wireless phone than are Treo's tiny buttons.

The key to this seeming paradox is the novel design of the BlackBerry keyboard. It uses a standard "qwerty" layout, but most of the keys produce two letters; for example, "q" and "w" share a key, as do "e" and "r." This gets the entire alphabet onto just 14 keys. But unlike a phone dial pad, where you select one letter out of three by tapping a key repeatedly, the BlackBerry works some algorithmic magic.

SIMPLY PUT, THE BLACKBERRY IS SMART ENOUGH to figure out which of the two letters you want and get it right nearly all the time. Prediction of this sort has been used before, particularly the T9 software from Tegic Communications, but it has never worked well. The BlackBerry has several huge advantages. With an average of 1.85 letters per key rather than the 3.25 on a standard phone, its odds of guessing right are much better. It improves the odds further by adding frequently used words to the phone's dictionary as well as all the names in your contact list. This last step overcomes the biggest shortfall of prediction, the tendency to mangle proper nouns. The BlackBerry is even smart enough to capitalize names automatically.

The trick to typing on the BlackBerry is to avoid the temptation to correct it until you have completed a word, because it makes mistakes and then fixes them. For example, as I typed the word "present," it got the "p" right, but then guessed "or," "per," and "ores." After I pressed the e-r key for the second "e," it caught my drift and completed the word correctly. RIM advises not looking at the display while typing, but watching the on-the-fly correction is fascinating. Just hold off on fixing anything until the word is finished, and it will almost always come out right -- provided you are writing in English.

The 7100t is the first BlackBerry that is also a first-rate phone. Pressing the green "call" button automatically brings up the dialing screen from any application, and the 12 buttons down the middle of the keyboard become a standard dial pad. You can also dial directly from your contact list or set up single-key speed dials.

Despite its appearance and low price, the 7100t is a full-fledged BlackBerry and can send and receive standard Internet mail as well as missives from behind-the-firewall corporate accounts. It includes a decent Web browser and can run customized applications. Although all major U.S. wireless carriers currently offer BlackBerrys, for now the new model will initially be available exclusively from T-Mobile. The service costs $60 a month for 1,000 voice minutes and unlimited data. Between attractive pricing and clever design, the BlackBerry could be ready for the jump from executive toy to mass-market must-have.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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