Blackberry with WiFi – First Looks at the Blackberry 8820.

Currently I am running IM+ for Skype, receiving email, using other Instant Messaging applications and making Facebook entries without using my Rogers (GSM/EDGE) data plan. The introduction of WiFi on the Blackberry 8820 (and Curve 8320) has significant implications for how mobile communications happens, the build out of wireless infrastructure and the cost of mobile data plans. And this week’s reporting of quarterly results for RIM show that momentum is building for their entire line of smartphones:

  • 1.45 million new subscribers with over 10 million in total (~30% non-enterprise)
  • 3 million units shipped, showing a strong "replacement" market.
  • revenues and profit doubled from a year ago.
  • Over 50% of new subscribers were "non-enterprise" retail clients.

But in a smartphone summary report by Catherine McLean at the Globe and Mail this statement says it all with respect to carriers, data plan pricing and driving demand in the smart phone market:

One trend RIM seems very keen on is lower prices for wireless data services. Mr. Balsillie noted on the call that T-Mobile in the U.S. launched a $9.99 BlackBerry e-mail plan. The experience in Europe has shown that such moves really drive adoption among consumers, Mr. Balsillie [RIM co-CEO] noted.

For the past week I have had the opportunity to try out the 8820 via several WiFi Access Point connections, including both "private" AP’s and the Canadian Hotspot Network, as well as the Rogers GSM/GPRS/EDGE network. Within this configuration WiFi provides data access to my email, the browser and several data applications, (such as Google, GMail, Google Maps, Google News and IM+ for Skype). As Rogers is not currently supporting UMA/GAN, it does not support voice via WiFi. However, Andy at VoIP Watch has been experiencing seamless transition of voice calls between GSM and WiFi on his recently acquired Blackberry 8320 where T-Mobile supports UMA/GAN via their T-Mobile Hotspot @ Home service (a $19.95 per month add-on). Some European carriers, such as Orange France, are currently supporting UMA/GAN on the 8820. (Note that only GSM networks can support UMA/GAN.)

Migrating from my Blackberry 8700 to the 8820 was very easy using RIM’s "Switch Device Wizard" (which also includes a process for switching from Windows Mobile and Palm devices); simply ran it to transfer all my basic Blackberry operations and features. The only manual process was registering the 8820’s PIN number with the carrier to be able to obtain my email.

In lieu of the previous "Radio On/Off" icon, there is now a "Manage Connections" icon to manage both GSM Network access as well as to set up and register various WiFi networks used in the course of my activities. Searches for WiFi network Access Points (AP’s), asks for any required WEP or PSK (WPA) keys, enter an Access Point name (SSID is the default) and connect. There is an option to store the AP information such that it is picked up automatically every time you return within range of the registered AP.

In the Home Screen above, notice that both WiFi and the GSM/EDGE networks are identified, not only by logos but are also named out. A Bluetooth headset is connected also; the plug beside the battery status icon indicates it is recharging (as would be the case whenever connected via USB to a laptop). No, this is not the GPhone (see the first row of icons above), but Google certainly provides significant support of its services for the Blackberry (just go to mobile.google.com and download). Whenever I enter an application native to the Blackberry or some other browser-based applications such as Google Search or Google News, the appropriate logo (WiFi or EDGE) flashes in the upper right ribbon bar to indicate which network is in use for this download. Some third party applications, including IM+ for Skype, GMail and Google Maps, will need to make a UI modification to show which network is being used during connection activity.

Occasionally I find that, while a WiFi Access Point is always detected, it is not actually fully connected until you start an application (and even then it will start out using EDGE). In fact, the WiFi indicator shown above has two statuses: one when WiFi is "scanning" but not connected (gray background behind "Fi") and another when the WiFi is connected (white background behind "Fi"). One feature about the Nokia N95’s dual network operation is that it has an option that actually lets you select which connection you want to use for an application to ensure you are using the lowest cost connection option when starting the application. This is probably the one issue that still needs to be made more robust and reliable.

At this point all my standard Blackberry applications are in use as previously on the 8700. However, one major change for two applications: Blackberry Maps and Google Maps. The Blackberry 8820 internally supports not simply GPS but Assisted GPS or A-GPS such that location is determined using both satellites and cell towers. I have had instances where the GPS indicator on Google Maps will follow me around from room-to-room within my house. While I expected the GPS to support Blackberry Maps, it was a bonus to find it supporting Google Maps. And it gets real interesting when using the satellite view; in walking my dog to a local park, it knew not only which street I was on but also which side of the street and at which driveway. It followed me along the paths within the park (did not try running the base paths on the softball diamond.) At times it will claim down to 3 meter accuracy. Occasionally the tracking appears to time out but it works much more effectively, in terms of time to obtain a location, than my experience with the N95.

The image on the right is a low resolution Google Maps satellite view in the Laurentian Mountains (north of Montreal); the bright white dot on the right (shown on the Blackberry as a flashing blue dot) indicates my current accommodation location. The satellite picture must have been taken in the spring when snow is still on the ski runs (center left) and golf course fairways (lower left). And the sandy area is actually a small aircraft landing strip. Unfortunately this is the best resolution satellite image for this area on Google Maps but it provides a good illustration of use of the 8820’s GPS with Google Maps.

The Blackberry Maps applications is more suited for driving directions and navigation activities.Its Location and Driving Directions features are linked to (i) Current location as detected by GPS, (ii) the Blackberry address book and (iii) manual address entry. Just remember that, when driving, for safety reasons you can’t also be operating the Blackberry Maps set up or Google Maps; an dashboard mounting bracket for your Blackberry would be appropriate. (These features are also available on the Blackberry 8310, the only 83xx Curve supporting GPS, as well as the 8800 and 8830.) In practice, while any phone-based GPS navigation will not replace a full featured dedicated GPS navigation system, such as those from Garmin or TomTom, Blackberry’s GPS features have many times helped me get out of difficult driving situations. (I did use Blackberry Maps on the 8700 with a remote GPS unit.)

To date I have largely used the Blackberry 8820 for email, Facebook updates, checking out (Google) news and sports scores as well as following some Skype chat sessions. The GPS has bailed me out of a couple of traffic obstruction situations. I have checked out the Voice Dialing feature. The speech recognition seems to work quite reliably; my main issue is to realize it is there as the default application for the Blackberry’s convenience key. (I also have an aversion to announcing out loud whom I want to call when in the company of others but can readily see its utility in an automobile environment.)

Why 83xx vs 88xx?

  • All 83xx include a camera and 1100 mah battery (4 hours talk time); only 8310 has GPS.
  • All 88xx include GPS and a 1400 mah battery (5 hours talk time)
  • Only 8×20 have WiFi support.
  • The 8320 has a 3.5 mm stereo headset jack while the 8820 has support for the Bluetooth stereo audio profile. (I just need to find an appropriate headset to check it out.)

Two third party applications, currently available on the Nokia N95, that I would like to see on WiFi-enabled Blackberries:

  • SlingPlayer; with the WiFi support, there is finally a Blackberry with the feature set and horsepower required to connect back to a SlingBox
  • Truphone client: another means of providing low cost VoIP access via a WiFi connection.

While many have touted the 8820 as a business competitor to the iPhone (which has no GPS, for instance), from the consumer and multimedia aspect, the new Blackberry 8320 Curve with its camera and 3.5 mm stereo headset jack is probably a more competitive offering for those who want superior overall email operation with 8×20’s superior, more tactile physical keyboard.

One most important feature where the Blackberry continues to win out over any competitive offering: battery life. The 88xx has 40% more battery life than the 8700 series and 27% more than the 83xx series. And infinitely more battery life than any Nokia smart phone.

In future posts I hope to cover features such as the media player

T-Mobile talks about how a UMA/GAN supported phone can become both your mobile and home phone. This certainly has some merit but probably also needs a build out of support services such as the forthcoming Blackberry Unite software interactively connecting up to five users. What will be interesting is determining the role of mobile phones and Skype in an world where voice access from a single device can be both fixed and mobile while inexpensive.

But even with my current configuration where the WiFi is only used for data, the 8820 has significant implications for enterprises that are internally WiFi-enabled. While having an "anywhere available" GSM network accessible while outside the enterprise, these enterprises can now significantly reduce GPRS/EDGE data plan usage for enterprise applications.

If you are serious about a smart phone with WiFi connectivity, definitely check out both the 8820 and Curve 8320. Running a dual mode phone does not simply provide additional routes to data access; it changes your entire thinking about how you use your mobile smartphone, especially when you are on a tolled data plan.

Tags: Blackberry, Blackberry 8820, Blackberry 8320, Blackberry Curve, UMA/GAN, UMA, Blackberry Unite, Rogers Wireless, Dual Mode Wireless, GSM, WiFi, T-Mobile Hotspot @ Home, Orange France, Skype, IM+ for Skype, Blackberry Maps, Google Maps, SlingPlayer, Truphone

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.
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