TECH & YOU PODCASTEveryone these days seems to be drawing a bead on Research In Motion () (RIM), the maker of the BlackBerry. Microsoft () officials say they are readying new software for server computers that will turn Pocket PCs into "BlackBerry killers." Companies from phone giant Nokia () to startup Sproqit Technologies offer competing services that forward e-mail and other data to handhelds. And it's not just enemy products that threaten RIM: There's a remote possibility that a long-running patent dispute could lead to a court-ordered halt of U.S. BlackBerry sales.
Notwithstanding such challenges, RIM, based in Waterloo, Ont., has been enjoying robust sales and earnings -- all the while pouring its resources into products and services that could preserve its edge. Its newest device, the BlackBerry 8700c, costs $299 with a two-year contract from Cingular Wireless. Versions from other carriers should arrive in the coming months.
The 8700c is a distinct improvement over previous models. The first thing you notice is that it's almost handsome compared with the utilitarian homeliness of the "BlueBerry" 7290 it replaces. The silver-and-black case is a critical quarter-inch or so narrower, so you can operate it with one hand. Like the smaller 7100 series introduced last fall, the 8700 is far more phone-like than previous BlackBerrys, with proper red and green Send and End buttons and a phone-style 10-key dial pad highlighted in the keyboard.
Unlike the 7100, which compromised the keyboard to allow for a much narrower design, the latest keyboard redesign is a step up. The overall size is a bit smaller, but the individual keys are larger and closer together. The key rows are arranged in a sort of Mona Lisa-smile curve, a design similar to the Palm () Treo 650.
THE DISPLAY IS THE MOST STRIKING new feature. The screen, with twice the resolution of the earlier model, is still smaller than those of the Pocket PC or the Treo, but it finally matches them for brightness and vivid color. The menus and screen layouts are largely unchanged, but I found the new BlackBerry easier to use -- perhaps because of the improved display and icons that make better sense.
Under the hood, the 8700 is completely redesigned around the same type of Intel () XScale processor used in Treos and Pocket PCs. This makes the new BlackBerry's performance a lot snappier. It also should placate software developers writing custom applications for the BlackBerry, who have long bemoaned its lack of processing power. Thanks to a boost in horsepower, the use of Cingular's relatively fast EDGE network, and a new browser, the BlackBerry has gone from being the worst PDA for Web surfing to perhaps the best. Data loads quickly, and even complex pages are reformatted to be readable on the small screen. But you do pay a price in battery life for performance. On one charge, the new BlackBerry lasted a day and a half with heavy mail use -- about the same as the adequate, but not great, Treo 650.
The one aspect of the BlackBerry that remains unchanged is its outstanding ability to retrieve mail, either from a desktop mail account or directly from a corporate mail server. The corporate version that I used syncs mail, contacts, and calendar flawlessly over the air, although I found the handheld applications are still a bit clunkier than a Treo running the similar GoodLink service from Good Technology.
RIM is also moving beyond BlackBerry hardware to meet the competition. BlackBerry Connect software, which lets BlackBerry service run on other devices, has been available in Europe and Asia for some time. The software will appear in the U.S. when Cingular offers the Nokia 9300 Communicator this fall and, more important, when Verizon Wireless ships the Windows Mobile-based Treo 700 early next year. BlackBerry aims to remain the king of mobile e-mail, and RIM seems to be making the right moves to stay on top.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm
By Stephen H. Wildstrom