BlackBerry hits UK today

BT's wireless division finally launches RIM's BlackBerry wireless email device to British businesses, with voice capabilities due to follow soon
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

MmO2, formerly BT Cellnet, is to finally deliver the long-awaited BlackBerry wireless email device to business customers on Wednesday, building on the gadget's striking success in the US. The launch opens up possibilities for growth into the European market.

MmO2 began taking BlackBerry orders at the start of June, and a representative said the company has seen "fantastic interest". About 10,000 companies have installed BlackBerry systems in the US, and Internet service providers like AOL offer a version to consumers.

BlackBerry's main appeal is sending and receiving email messages in real time over an always-on wireless network. The PDA has a built-in keyboard that makes typing short messages a less painful excercise than on a standard mobile phone keypad. Handheld computers can be used to manage email via a wireless handset, but they have to dial up a connection first.

The British version will soon have one important advantage over its American counterpart: voice capabilities. In the US, BlackBerry uses a two-way pager network, but the British model runs on British Telecommunications' general packet radio service network, giving it opportunities for more features. GPRS runs alongside the normal GSM mobile phone network.

An mmO2 spokesman said that adding voice to the UK BlackBerry is just a matter of a free software download, and will arrive in "months not years". MmO2 wanted to focus on the device's wireless email capabilities first rather than launching it as a mobile phone replacement.

A consumer version will probably be offered through British ISPs before long, mmO2 suggested, but no concrete plans have been announced.

Early corporate adopters of the RIM device will have a substantial price to pay for BlackBerry's convenience. The PDAs cost between £389 and £439, depending on how many are purchased, and the licence for the central server software costs £2,500 for the first 20 connections. Airtime costs a flat rate of £39 per month.

Kitting out 20 users with the £439 devices, then, would cost about £12,060 for the first month, with the bill for the first year coming to £20,640.

Dennis Kavelman, chief financial officer of Research In Motion, the maker of BlackBerry devices, earlier told ZDNet that RIM is counting on its European effort -- as well as a separate effort to make all BlackBerry pagers compatible with Lotus Notes -- to help the company keep growing despite a diminished appetite for technology spending at large companies.

While technologically simple, the move to add voice to the email device is financially challenging. RIM deserves to benefit from the voice calls made over a BlackBerry, Kavelman said, but has yet to work out the financial details with BT. "We don't know what the voice model is," he said.

RIM is not the only handheld maker with its eye on Europe and the GSM market. Palm chief financial officer Judy Bruner has said that her company is working on a handheld with built-in, GSM-based wireless functions. French phone maker Sagem has also announced a combination cell phone/handheld computer using Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system.

Handspring's VisorPhone add-on for handhelds also runs on the GSM network, and is already on sale in Europe.

IDC analyst Alex Slawsby said that a voice-capable BlackBerry is one of several products that could make so-called convergence devices more attractive. Slawsby also pointed to Motorola's Accompli 009, provided that the unit comes down in price.

Scott Miller, an analyst at C.E. Unterberg Towbin, said he expects that it will take some time for the BlackBerry to catch on in Europe. He said the initial marketing will focus on US companies that have European operations and others that have experience with the BlackBerry. "There is some question as to really how rapid the adoption will be," Miller said. "Europe is much more phone-centric."

CNET News.com's Ian Fried contributed to this report.

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