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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

BlackBerry, Bluetooth Miss a Shot to Move Into More Hands

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page F07

BlackBerrys and Bluetooth share an embarrassing trait -- these two uses of wireless technology have remained stubbornly irrelevant to many mainstream users, despite the benefits they might offer and the hype they often get in the press.

Many busy executives have become utterly dependent on the always-on e-mail access provided by Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry handhelds, but these devices' high costs and business-oriented features haven't constituted an attractive bundle for people who mostly use their cell phones to talk.

BlackBerrys and Bluetooth have fervent, but still limited, followings. (The Washington Post)

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In a similar manner, Bluetooth has drawn a fervent following among enthusiasts who use it to link their phones to headsets, computers and even cars -- but it has remained invisible to customers of the nation's largest carrier, Verizon Wireless, which until recently did not carry a single Bluetooth phone.

These two technologies, however, just got another shot at breaking out into the mass market. RIM's new BlackBerry 7100 is the first BlackBerry that looks and acts more like a phone than a palm-sized computer, thanks to a crafty little keypad that works for both dialing numbers and entering text. Motorola's V710, meanwhile, finally brings Bluetooth to Verizon customers -- along with such high-end features as a built-in camera, camcorder and MP3 player.

The 7100, sold by T-Mobile for $300 (with a $100 mail-in rebate available), is easily the more remarkable device. At first, it looks as if it uses a painfully miniaturized keyboard in the usual QWERTY layout. Not so; the phone has a standard numeric keypad, plus a column of keys on either side. Most of the keys bear two letters apiece.

To free you from the awkward process of having to press a key twice to get the second letter on it, the 7100's SureType software looks at the words you could spell with any given series of key presses, then offers the likeliest match. For instance, if you press 8 (B, N), 3 (U, I) and 2 (T, Y) in order, SureType will suggest the most common word those letters spell out, "but." Other possibilities -- "buy," "bit," "nut," "nit" -- appear below for you to select with the 7100's jog-dial control.

This is the same concept behind the predictive-typing software on other phones, but here you can type on a keyboard layout that feels familiar.

(The Washington Post)
The trick is to avoid constantly looking at the screen as you type, or you'll be too distracted by the alternate spellings. Just bang away at the keys, and most of the time SureType will be uncannily accurate -- it's even smart enough to add an apostrophe when you type "theres" or look into the phone's address book to see if you're trying to type somebody's name. I had few problems instant-messaging with a friend.

Sometimes I did have to enter a word manually, and in a few cases SureType offered some out-of-left-field spellings. But overall, it's an amazing piece of work. It's the best idea in handheld text input since the Graffiti software on Palm handhelds.

If only the rest of the 7100 was as smart as this. RIM's software, the weak point in earlier BlackBerry handhelds, hasn't gotten much stronger on this model. Although the 7100 includes the same type of address book, calendar, to-do and note-taking programs as Palm or Pocket PC handhelds, it's not close to competing with them -- thanks to RIM's unwillingness to learn basic principles of interface design.

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