Is the BlackBerry your next pager?

Forget the cell phone and Palm PDA. A new generation of devices led by the 957 BlackBerry may offer inexpensive wireless communications

The once-ubiquitous pager is fast being squeezed out of the market by ever-cheaper cell phones and more-capable handheld devices, such as the Palm. But pagers may yet have the last laugh.

A new generation of devices, led by Research in Motion's (RIM) 957 BlackBerry Wireless Handheld, are poised to offer users inexpensive email and Web-browsing capabilities that build on the simplicity of the pager.

"Pagers are dropping off (in popularity) as cell phones continue to grow," said Dave Jackson, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group. "You can see this especially in the pricing of one-way devices. But there is a market opportunity for two-way pagers, which is the largest growth area of pagers."

Enter the 957 BlackBerry, a colourful, 5.3-ounce device that measures 0.7 by 3.1 by 4.6 inches and is expected to sell for about $500 (£321) with a $40 monthly fee for unlimited use. RIM will start shipping the device this week.

The 957 BlackBerry will run on an Intel 386 processor, backed by 5MB of flash memory and 512K of static RAM. The 957 is designed to run for 24 hours between charges using its lithium-ion battery. It comes with a 16- or 20-line backlit display.

The 957 will also include "always-on" operation and security encryption, and it won't need an antenna, said Mark Guibert, director of marketing at RIM.

But the BlackBerry has obstacles to overcome, including a proprietary operating system, an interface that doesn't use a pen or stylus, and the fact that some 20m PDAs have already been sold.

Among PDAs, however, only the Palm VII unit provides users with those features.

While recognising that mobile professionals are RIM's bread and butter, Guibert said BlackBerry will have to quickly appeal to a large consumer audience.

"The device has more of a corporate appeal because of its features, but in order to catch on with consumers it will have to evolve into a more user-friendly device," said Bryan Prohm, analyst at Dataquest.

The first major sign of that move came February 28, when RIM announced it would work with America Online to develop an Internet appliance due later this year. RIM has also signed agreements with Compaq, AT&T, RCN and OneMain.com, but those deals were for distribution, nothing similar to the deal with AOL.

The move for AOL is an element of AOL's Mobile Messenger service, which will provide users with wireless access to AOL Mail and AOL Instant Messenger.

The palm-sized 957 isn't RIM's first wireless product. The company already offers the traditional pager-sized 850 and two versions of the 950, which are differentiated by their amounts of memory and the network frequency.

RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, was founded by Mike Lazaridis in 1984 when he was a student at the University of Waterloo. It started as an engineering firm but in 1988 began focusing on wireless data.

The company earned $10.5m on sales of $85m in its fiscal year ended February 29.

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