Arguably, you can say that RIM has had Wi-Fi in its portfolio since 2004 when it introduced the Wi-Fi only 7270 into the market. However, where the real rubber meets the road for Wi-Fi and handheld devices is in the "dual mode" category that incorporates both Wi-Fi and cellular technology in the same device. Competitors like Nokia and HTC have offered dual mode devices for some time; today, RIM has finally provided its answer: the BlackBerry 8820
One might think that the BlackBerry 8820 was going to be more of a "me too" device in order to provide an answer to dual mode devices like those in the Nokia E-Series line. However, RIM has actually raised the bar from a technical standpoint by including not only 802.11b and g, but also 802.11a as well. The addition of a 5GHz radio surprised me given that conventional wisdom states that Wi-Fi is power hungry enough without adding a second radio. We've been bullish on 802.11a for virtue of its extra bandwidth and capacity, so it's good to see handheld manufacturers embracing both technologies. The only question that remains is how the BlackBerry 8820 will fair in terms of battery life compared to its b/g only competition.
Another interesting note is that the BlackBerry 8820 supports UMA (unlicensed mobile access, sometimes referred to as GAN or generic access network). UMA is, at its most basic, a way of providing consumers a way of placing calls from their home Wi-Fi network and having those calls seamlessly roam to a cellular network and then back to Wi-Fi. Currently, T-Mobile is the only carrier to support the technology through its T-Mobile Hotspot @Home service. Given that AT&T Mobility (formerly Cingular) will be first to launch the device, does that mean AT&T will now offer a similar service? In short, no. I spoke briefly with John Kampfe, Director for Media & Industry Analyst Relations with AT&T Mobility who stated that just because RIM has included UMA support on the device does not mean that AT&T will actually support the technology.
While UMA support has little effect on AT&T it should make a larger splash with T-Mobile. The company's @Home service has been plagued by a lack of handset choice, particularly in the smartphone space. With the introduction of the BlackBerry 8820, T-Mobile will have a handset it can offer to business users to hopefully expand the penetration of @Home. The question is whether or not business users will buy in and whether enterprises will let them.
Of course the larger point that the 8820 raises is what will Wi-Fi support mean for Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) within the enterprise. Nokia's E-Series platform has become popular among developers not only because the devices include Wi-Fi but also because the hardware is relatively standard compared to Windows Mobile where OEMs use a wide variety of hardware configurations to create phones. RIM's BlackBerry platform offers the same level of hardware uniformity and control that Nokia has but with larger enterprise penetration, at least in the US and thus may prove attractive to developers.
RIM has already brought FMC development to the BlackBerry. FMC competitors like Avaya and DiVitas have introduced call handoff functionality that allows calls to roam between Wi-fi and cellular. My initial experiences with this sort of technology were rocky, however subsequent demos at Interop showed that companies, like DiVitas, have made some headway in this space. Given RIM's close relationship with carriers and the fact that FMC allows enterprises to reduce cellular charges by moving calls to enterprise WLAN networks, it will be interesting to see what development will happen on the BlackBerry 8820 and subsequent platforms and what the performance will be compared to its competition.