By Michal Lev-Ram
SAN FRANCISCO – Attention, Crackberry addicts: Research in Motion just launched yet another device for your mobile e-mailing needs. Only this one is a little different – it’s the Canadian phonemaker’s first-ever flip phone.
RIM (RIMM) unveiled its new device, called the Pearl Flip 8220, early Wednesday ahead of the wireless industry’s big confab, CTIA, in San Francisco. No word yet from either RIM or T-Mobile – which will be the exclusive U.S. carrier of the device when it goes on sale later this fall – on how much the Pearl Flip will cost.
The new phone fits well with RIM’s bid to sell phones to Average Joes, not just business users. The company recently rolled out a sleek-looking device, called the Bold, overseas and has been making a big push to get more consumer applications – like music and social networking features – onto its devices worldwide. Investors are waiting for RIM to unveil even more consumer-centric devices in coming months, including a touchscreen that’s expected to compete with Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, codenamed Thunder.
RIM has good reason to branch out. While smartphones are the fastest-growing phone category, clamshell phones like the Motorola (MOT) Razr are still the most widely-distributed mobile devices in the United States. What’s more, competition is heating up as Apple courts consumers with its iPhone and takes aim at RIM’s core customers – business users. To battle iPhone’s cult-like following and growing market share, RIM will, among other things, need to prove that it too can appeal to consumers.At 3.6 ounces, the Pearl Flip has the same trackball navigator and keyboard (a modified QWERTY that assigns two letters to each key) as the regular Pearl, and sports both external and internal LCD screens. Unlike the new iPhone, the Pearl Flip won’t run on a fast 3G network from AT&T (T) or another carrier. It will operate instead on T-Mobile’s slower nationwide network, although the phone’s built-in Wi-Fi promises faster speeds.Despite Apple’s success, RIM’s share of the smartphone market has been growing fast (it’s now at about 47%, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. The 15-month-old iPhone has 15% of the market). But just like Apple needs to prove it can appeal to business users, RIM needs to show consumers that the BlackBerry brand isn’t all business.