BlackBerry's on the ball

New 8800 business model uses tiny sphere, not wheel, for scrolling

Plugged In

February 15, 2007|By New York Times News Service

OTTAWA -- Executives who are longtime BlackBerry users will have to teach their right thumb some new tricks if they switch to a model introduced Monday.

The model, the BlackBerry 8800, eliminates a tiny scroll wheel on the side that is intended to navigate through lists of e-mail messages. The plastic wheel has been a signature feature of all business-oriented BlackBerrys since the first model was released eight years ago.

In its place on the 8800 is a small front-mounted navigation ball developed for the BlackBerry Pearl, a consumer model released last year.

While the Pearl is an attempt by BlackBerry's maker, Research in Motion, to enter a larger and more competitive market, some experts believe the 8800 is a more important product than the Pearl. Priced at $300 in some AT&T plans, the 8800 will be aimed at corporate and business users, a market segment dominated by Research in Motion, which has its headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario.

Michael Lazaridis, president and co-chief executive of Research in Motion, said he anticipated that even hardcore BlackBerry users would find the ball easier to use, particularly when viewing Web pages and using some of the multimedia features introduced on the device, including a GPS automatic mapping system.

The small, pealike ball, Lazaridis said, is as efficient as a computer mouse when it comes to navigating through screens that require movement from side-to-side rather than just scrolling up and down, the action needed for e-mail lists.

He also took an indirect shot at Apple's new iPhone, which uses a touch screen to achieve the same end.

"We're all used to having a mouse on our desk," Lazaridis said. "But not many of us have a touch screen."

Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat, a market research firm, is far less skeptical about the iPhone's approach than is Lazaridis. But he added that the consumer reaction to the Pearl suggested that business users would not miss thumb wheels.

"Most people really take to it," he said. "The wheel is problematic when you have to go two different directions."

The 8800, which will first be offered by AT&T next Wednesday, maintains the full keyboard that has always been featured on BlackBerrys intended for business and government users. Despite that, it is the thinnest hand-held ever offered by the company, a feature that Lazaridis said did not come at the expense of the battery's size.

The unit includes other features from the Pearl, such as the ability to accept SD memory cards and play music as well as videos. Corporations that want workers to just work, can shut down or limit all of those features by remote control.

But Lazaridis said that corporate users concerned about security made it clear that they did not want a digital camera, which is not to be found on the 8800.

"There's a very strong demand out there for BlackBerrys without a camera," Lazaridis said. "Not having one, that's a feature."

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