The different ways T-Mobile and AT&T integrate Wi-Fi make all the difference
The newest products from Research In Motion (RIMM) seem as alike as two blackberries in a bramble. Both the BlackBerry 8820 from AT&T (T) and the BlackBerry Curve 8320 from T-Mobile are the first of their breed to include Wi-Fi. But they use it in very different ways. Of the two, the Curve is a more practical choice for most consumers.
Corporations are likely to favor AT&T's 8820 ($300 after rebate, with a two-year contract), a workhorse in the BlackBerry tradition. It's not quite all work, since it adds a media player to BlackBerry's trademark mobile e-mail and contact and calendar sync. But RIM left off other consumer features, such as a camera, that security-minded corporate buyers don't like.
Think of this product as a platform. It's just waiting for companies and software makers to customize it to take advantage of capabilities such as a global-positioning-system receiver. Depending on a company's needs, it could add TeleNav GPS navigation tools or tracking software for managing a fleet of cars or trucks. Still, if a corporate IT department hasn't enabled specific applications, about the only thing the Wi-Fi is good for is faster Web browsing. And given the device's small screen and underpowered browser, that's of limited utility.
The Curve ($249 with contract) comes with all the corporate features of the 8820 except GPS and adds consumer-friendly touches. It's a bit smaller than the 8820, making it easier to hold, at the price of a slightly cramped keyboard. It has a 2-megapixel camera and, like Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, uses a 3.5-millimeter consumer-electronics-style headphone jack rather than the 2.5mm jack used in most handsets. It also works with Bluetooth wireless stereo headphones.
It's All in the Network
The biggest difference between the two BlackBerrys is not the phones but the way the networks they run on use Wi-Fi. The Curve is the first smartphone that works with T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home service (BusinessWeek, 7/19/07). This uses a technology called Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) that lets calls move seamlessly among T-Mobile's regular over-the-air service and Wi-Fi networks; there's no need to switch networks or use a separate service like Skype. This is especially pleasing in locations, including your home, office, or T-Mobile public hotspots, where you have Wi-Fi but T-Mobile network coverage may be poor. Plus, calls made on Wi-Fi don't use calling-plan minutes.
The Curve's bigger bonus: BlackBerry e-mail and contact and calendar updates also move over Wi-Fi—a welcome benefit deep within buildings, where phone coverage tends to vanish.
If only the 8820 did the same tricks on AT&T's network. The phone can be set up to get corporate mail over Wi-Fi, but only if your IT department has installed special software. Even then you may only get service in your own corporate facilities. An AT&T spokesperson says the company has no plans to offer UMA. T-Mobile's service options for the Curve make for complicated pricing. Although you can get a smidgen of data service for just $10 a month above the cost of a voice plan, I think most people will go for the $30 plan that includes unlimited messages and browsing. HotSpot @Home service adds $20 to your monthly bill. It includes unlimited domestic voice calls made over Wi-Fi and use of T-Mobile hotspots. AT&T's BlackBerry service starts at $40 per month in addition to a voice plan.
If you live in an area where T-Mobile service is at least half-decent, the Curve strikes me as the better choice. The camera (which your paranoid employer can always disable) and other features are attractive, but the advantages of T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home service are the real clincher.