What’s behind RIM’s new BlackBerry 5810?

More than a year ago, I gave up my cell phone in favor of the Research In Motion Ltd. BlackBerry 957. While I occasionally miss making calls from the road, it’s been an easy trade-off. Yet, should Research In Motion offer a BlackBerry phone, you’d find me first in line for it.

RIM has hinted for months that it’s been working on such a device, and I’ve secretly dreaded the company might take a wrong turn and cook up some Frankenstein (FrankenBerry?) phone/PDA monster, spoiling the design. (No doubt Palm’s recent release of the i705 with its clip-on, BlackBerry-like keyboard contributed to my state of mind here.)

So I’m relieved to report that last Monday, RIM announced its voice-capable BlackBerry 5810, and it didn’t change a thing. RIM simply added a phone jack to the top of the device, into which you plug a headset and mike. You input phone numbers the same as you would any other phone, and make calls or send Short Message Service text messages from your address book. RIM is sending me the device in a couple of weeks, and it will be generally available within a month.

“We wanted to keep the keyboard and large screen, and didn’t want to add mechanical components. You want as few mechanical hinges and springs as possible,” says Mark Guibert, vice-president of brand management at RIM. About 20 per cent of wireless phone users have adopted headsets according to The Yankee Group, so that shouldn’t be a barrier, especially for occasional phone use.

The new BlackBerry runs on VoiceStream or AT&T Wireless GSM/General Packet Radio Service networks in the United States and Rogers AT&T Wireless in Canada. The device will cost US$500, and service pricing isn’t yet settled but should fall in the $40 per month range for voice and data. It will run on the same BlackBerry server software as earlier devices, and while RIM doesn’t have plans to offer an upgrade path for existing 957 users, it expects companies will buy 5810s for their top executives and hand down the 957s, as they’ve done with previous models.

While adding voice might be a big deal to remote users like me, RIM isn’t positioning the 5810 as a voice device at all, says Yankee Group analyst Sarah Kim. Instead, voice is RIM’s entry into the carrier stores, a whole new distribution channel. “It makes more sense for the carriers to sell something that does voice rather than just wireless data,” she says.

In fact, the bigger news behind the voice news is that the 5810’s client software is based on Java 2 Platform Micro Edition, which opens up the BlackBerry platform to the large community of Java application developers, and that IBM Global Services will offer 5810 support to its customers.

Kistner is the managing editor of the Net.Worker section of Network World. She can be reached at tkistner@nww.com.