On July 19 Research in Motion (RIM) announced BlackBerry 8820, the first Wi-Fi enabled version of its handheld device. This thin model sports dual-mode operation, both cellular and Wi-Fi, along with a full keyboard, voice and data functionality and an enhanced media player.
As the dust settled we caught up with Kevin Oerton, RIM’s director of Wi-Fi product management, to talk about RIM’s vision and strategy for BlackBerry’s Wi-Fi enabled future.
Q: Why now? What market forces make this the right time to introduce a Wi-Fi enabled BlackBerry?
A: Carriers are recognizing that Wi-Fi is complimentary to cellular networks. It provides customers with a means to extend coverage in locations that would otherwise be difficult and expensive to reach with cellular alone.
At the same time, enterprise Wi-Fi infrastructure has improved and matured in terms of QoS, security, scalability, and manageability. Wi-Fi chipsets for handsets have also become smaller, less expensive, and more power efficient. Many of the barriers we’ve seen in the past are now gone.
Q: Who is the intended audience? What will attract them to the BlackBerry 8820?
A: The most immediate demand will be from industry verticals that have a larger number of premise-based mobile workers. This includes employees in health care, retail, hospitality and education. More traditional enterprise customers are looking to adopt the BlackBerry 8820 as they expand their Wi-Fi coverage from the lobby, cafeteria, and meeting rooms to a more ubiquitous campus-wide deployments.
Q: Can you share sales projections?
A: We don’t break out projections for specific handsets. RIM provided general guidance for the current quarter here:
[By way of context, Infonetics Research projects sales of Wi-Fi-enabled phones in general will register double-digit growth every year through 2010, eventually reaching the $145 billion mark. Dual-mode WiFi/cellular phone sales should growth at a compound annual growth rate of 31 percent through 2010.]
Q: What are the most likely uses of the BlackBerry 8820? What will Wi-Fi access enable people to do?
A: Improved coverage means that customers can use existing BlackBerry data services like e-mail and browsing in more locations, ranging from the middle of a factory floor to the basement of a user’s home in the suburbs.
Wi-Fi is also an excellent solution for moving large amounts of data and files. For example, hospitals are excited about using the BlackBerry 8820 to move medical dictionaries and patient diagnostic information securely and reliably over Wi-Fi.
Q: Despite Blackberry’s solid market share, RIM isn’t the first to hit market with handheld Wi-Fi. Why the somewhat late entry?
A: There were many devices with Wi-Fi out ahead of the BlackBerry 8820. This is because RIM has always taken a methodical approach to handset development; we don’t just add new technologies for their own sake, but look to add technologies that can enhance the BlackBerry user experience.
Q: Any technical challenges in putting Wi-Fi into a Blackberry?
A: Wi-Fi itself is fairly straightforward and the BlackBerry 8820 supports the “a” “b” and “g” Wi-Fi varieties. One challenge was making the handset meet various Wi-Fi security models for the enterprise. We had to ensure that it supported WPA and WPA2 encryption, multiple flavors of 802.1x authentication methods, and a full range of VPN concentrators and Cisco Compatible Extensions.
Another important requirement was to enable UMA support, which—for our European carrier partners that have a UMA offering—provides the ability to make voice calls over Wi-Fi and seamlessly switch between cellular and Wi-Fi networks while on a voice call.
We asked about future plans for Wi-Fi and Blackberry. Oerton declined to comment.
Will Wi-Fi BlackBerry draw a crowd? A lot of factors will determine the outcome. Analysts question whether all the pieces are indeed in place to ensure the seamless Wi-Fi/cellular call handoffs that are essential to success. It remains to be seen, too, whether some other device maker won’t just build a better mousetrap.
In RIM’s favor? As it has been said, BlackBerry rivals only crack in its ability to get users addicted. Among the device’s already loyal cadre, even the mere promise of new functionality may be simply too good to resist.