Dell launched itself against Palm Computing yesterday when it released its first non-PC product: the much-rumoured Blackberry two-way pager. Not the most obvious area to move into, you might think - pagers are ten a penny these days - but Blackberry's interest lies in the fact that it's actually more wireless organiser than pager.
Blackberry's USP is its ability to maintain personal diaries and address books, both of which can be synchronised with and backed-up to a PC, and send and receive email. Essentially, what we have here is a wireless PDA at a fraction of the cost of devices like the Palm VII. Unlike the Palm VII, there's no Web access, but in the kind of corporate roles Dell has in mind for the product, that shouldn't matter too much - this is, after all, a communications tool rather than an information access product.
Blackberry is about the size of a pack of cards, and its front panel sports a text screen and a QWERTY keypad. It was developed by Canadian company Research in Motion, and is based on an Intel 386 chip. It will ship in the US for $399, plus a $39.95 per month connection fee. That's less than the Palm VII and is likely to be cheaper than next year's next-generation WAP-based mobile phones, all of which will be pitched into the emerging market for wireless data comms devices.
Ultimately, all three device types will come together - Palm licensee Handspring is developing a pager module for its Visor PDA, while Qualcomm is already offering PalmOS-based mobile phones - but there's room here for Dell to try its pager-based approached in the meantime.
It's uncertain right now how users will want to use wireless media to access wider information networks - phone, PDA or some other device - but Dell's approach has clear advantages: Blackberry is less obtrusive than a cellphone, and, unlike most PDAs, the user has a keypad rather than a stylus. So there's no need to learn Graffiti, or any of the difficulties encountered attempting to enter text using a mobile phone's numerical keypad. ®
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