RIM announces BlackBerry Pearl 3G; bets many consumers won't need full QWERTY

Research in Motion kicked off its WES 2010 event on Monday by unveiling the BlackBerry Pearl 3G and touting it as the phone for consumers upgrading from standard cell phones.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

Research in Motion kicked off its WES 2010 event on Monday by unveiling the BlackBerry Pearl 3G and touting it as the phone for consumers upgrading from standard cell phones.

While competitors are betting on touchscreen devices for consumers, RIM thinks it will be easier to convert traditional mobile users from their current keypad phones to a slightly more advanced keypad on the Pearl 3G.

RIM Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis stated:

"The BlackBerry Pearl 3G is unlike any other smartphone in the world and we expect a broad range of new and existing customers will be drawn to its powerful features and compact design. Considering the fast growing consumer interest in smartphones and the fact that more than three-quarters of the people in the global mobile phone market are still buying handsets with a traditional alphanumeric keypad, we think the new BlackBerry Pearl 3G addresses a substantial market opportunity. It allows consumers to upgrade their traditional mobile phone to a full-featured, easy-to-use and fashionable 3G BlackBerry smartphone that supports BlackBerry Messenger and many other apps while maintaining a handset design and layout that is familiar and comfortable."

Below are the Pearl 3G specs, which haven't changed much from the existing Pearl so I've mostly highlighted the upgrades:

  • pearl3g.jpg
    624 MHz processor (up from 312 MHz)
  • Tri-band UMTS/HSDPA and quad-band EDGE/GPRS/GSM networks
  • 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • 256 MB Flash memory (up from 64 MB)
  • 360x400 display (up from 260x240)
  • Optical trackpad (formerly a trackball, which gave the "Pearl" its name)
  • 3.2 MP camera (up from 2 MP)
  • GPS
  • microSD/SDHD slot supporting up to 32 GB storage
  • BlackBerry OS 5

The Pearl 3G will be marketed as the 9100 series model. The current Pearl phones (8100 series) have only had minor upgrades since they were first introduced in 2006 and have pretty much been replaced by the various models of the popular BlackBerry Curve as RIM's entry level smartphone. That makes this revival of the Pearl a bit of a surprise.

Since this is mostly an incremental upgrade from the existing Pearl, the enthusiasm from Lazaridis could signal that RIM intends to price the Pearl 3G very competitively -- perhaps even allowing carriers to give away the Pearl 3G -- but that is purely speculation. Neither RIM nor the carriers announced official pricing.

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Of course, the other thing to consider when talking about moving consumers from regular cell phones to smartphones is the data plan, which can typically add at least $20-$40 per month to the bill. Over the course of a year, that's far more substantial than the difference between a free phone and a $99 or even $199 device.

Could that mean the Pearl might be sold without a data plan, or with a discounted "lite" data plan for something like $15? (See AT&T's discount data plans for the iPad.) If not, then the Pearl 3G could be a very tough sell to consumers, who can get a much more powerful Android or iPhone device for a little more money up front. If you're still paying the same amount for your cell bill every month, you might as well get the best phone you can, especially if you're stuck with it for a two-year contract.

The bottom line is that without aggressive pricing the Pearl 3G is not likely to turn many heads. Even with aggressive pricing it wouldn't be a slam dunk in the crowded smartphone market. RIM is basically trying to buck the market and bet that there are a lot of consumers who want to avoid a touchscreen phone, and that the Pearl 3G will be the answer for them. That's a pretty risky bet, given the popularity of the iPhone and the momentum of Android.

If this is RIM's big move in the consumer space, it's likely to be greeted by disappointment from BlackBerry fans and RIM market watchers, who are looking for exciting new gear from the traditional smartphone powerhouse, which is under intense pressure in the mobile market from Apple, Google, Nokia, and a recently-resurgent Microsoft.

UPDATE 1: As you can see in the photo below, the BlackBerry Pearl 3G will be available with two different keyboard options - a traditional keypad (left) and the Pearl SureType keyboard (right).


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