BlackBerry phones finally become Wi-Fi hotspots

Wireless tethering is one of several new features in version 7.1 of the BlackBerry OS, which was released on Monday at CES alongside an update to the BlackBerry Messenger tool

Research In Motion has started rolling out version 7.1 of its BlackBerry operating system, along with a new version of BlackBerry Messenger and other core apps for the platform.

BlackBerry Maps

The 7.1 update to the BlackBerry operating system brings wireless tethering and a feature in BlackBerry maps that highlights local offers and discounts. Image credit: RIM

The smartphone maker unveiled the update at CES 2012 on Monday. BlackBerry 7.1 allows customers to turn their BlackBerry phones into Wi-Fi hotspots and makes increased use of near-field communication (NFC) functionality.

"The range of software updates announced today build upon the strengths of [BlackBerry 7] to further enhance the mobile experience and make life easier, from managing daily tasks to planning big adventures," RIM co-chief Mike Lazaridis said in a statement.

According to RIM, the 7.1 update lets people "turn their BlackBerry smartphone into a mobile hotspot that can be shared by up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices, including laptops and tablets".

Rival platforms have had similar functionality for a while. Android has had it since the 'Froyo' 2.2 release in May 2010, Apple introduced it in iOS 4.3 in March 2011, and Microsoft brought it to Windows Phone in the 'Mango' 7.5 update that came out in September 2011.

As with these other platforms, operators will get to choose whether to allow this wireless tethering functionality. Some may not decide to do so because it obviates the need for a second SIM for tablet usage, while others may charge an extra fee for allowing tethering.

BlackBerry 7.1 also supports Wi-Fi calling (UMA/GAN), although again it is up to the operator whether or not to enable it. The technology makes it possible to call people without using paid airtime minutes.

Tag and other new features

RIM has been building NFC into its phones since the Bold 9900 and Bold 9930 last May. Now the company has given people something to use the technology for. A new feature in BlackBerry 7.1 called Tag lets people share content and information by tapping their NFC-enabled BlackBerry smartphones together, much in the same way as Android 'Ice Cream Sandwich' 4.0 does for users of that platform.

The Tag feature can be used to invite people to be contacts on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), which accordingly has been updated to a new version, 6.1. The update to the instant-messaging service comes with a few consumer-focused enhancements, such as the ability to set a profile picture straight from the camera app.

In addition, RIM released new versions of its Traffic app, which now includes hands-free turn-by-turn voice guidance, and its Travel app, which has added support for location-specific deals for hotels, car rental and other services.

It also refreshed BlackBerry Maps to incorporate location-specific offers, coupons and discounts from nearby establishments. The customer can click on the presented deal to call the vendor or find the best route to the shop or restaurant.

The company's recently-released Curve 9360 and Curve 9380 smartphones have been given a boost from BlackBerry 7.1, as the update unlocks their FM radio functionality.

Despite its range of new features, version 7.1 of the BlackBerry OS is, as its numbering suggests, a relatively minor update. The next major version will be BlackBerry 10, which is scheduled to come out in the second half of this year — a delayed release that has been one of several factors hitting RIM's profits of late.

Another problem for RIM is the delayed launch of its PlayBook 2.0 tablet operating system. This was originally pegged for an October 2011, but put off until February 2012, meaning RIM had to make do at CES with showing off the OS in preview form.

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