BlackBerry pagers planned for new wireless networks

Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) plans to take its BlackBerry line of keyboard-equipped pagers on the road to Europe later this year by adding new models that are being designed to support both voice and data services over high-speed wireless networks being built in that region.

For now, the BlackBerry devices are data-only devices and are just configured to work on North American wireless networks . But Jim Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO at Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM, said in an interview that it will start making “souped-up” versions of the pagers for use on General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) networks that are due to be deployed in Europe this year.

The GPRS wireless networks are expected to have bandwidth of up to 144K bit/sec. RIM plans to target the voice/data BlackBerry devices at European companies and North American businesses that have operations in Europe, Balsillie said. It will also offer them the U.S. once North American wireless carriers roll out their own GPRS networks, he said.

The disclosure of the European plans follows an agreement announced two days ago, under which IBM Corp.’s Global Services unit will begin offering BlackBerry devices as part of wireless computing setups that it designs and installs for users on a global basis.

Balsillie said RIM and IBM will also market the technology to corporate users that want to “morph their operations from private data networks . . . to public [ones].” For example, Memphis-based FedEx Corp. has started rolling out a European dispatching and package-tracking system that’s based on a public text messaging service. That’s exactly the kind of project RIM has in mind, according to Balsillie.

Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., said RIM’s development of a combined voice and data pager should help it meet competition from Motorola Inc. and other rivals that have already started introducing such devices.

But, Reiter added, RIM needs to pay attention to ergonomic issues while designing a dual-function device. Earlier attempts at such products have failed to attract many users because of the difficulties that vendors face in making a handheld device that works well as both a phone and portable mini-PC, he said