Research In Motion has long wanted to get out into the consumer phone market where there are much greater volumes: 75 million phones are sold each quarter in EMEA, compared with around 700,000 email devices. The company's market research has told it the only way to do that is to make a device which includes a camera, a media player and removable storage - and to make it small and light.
The result is a device that manages to combine traditional BlackBerry strengths with the joys of a small phone, and seems likely to combine the best of both worlds. It has been widely predicted that RIM - perhaps still stinging from lawsuit-induced woes earlier this year - will fade before other devices, but this device is strong argument against that.
It is tempting to dismiss the importance of smallness, but studies show that large devices only go to certain sorts of people - either those who will put up with a big lumpy device in order to be ahead of the technology curve (or earlier in RIM's life, as a fashion statement), or those who are forced to use them by their IT department. I myself have changed my ideas about size.
In the past, RIM has fitted its devices to its chosen market, for instance limiting the colours in the displays on older models, and trimming back all extraneous functions in order to provide an exemplary battery life and dependability.
The engineers there have taken the same approach to the new challenge of size and weight, and again have made sensible decisions. Making a BlackBerry that weighs 89g, is 1.4cm thick, 5cm across and 10.7cm high, is no mean feat, and the device does feel comfortable in the hand.
At the time of writing we have only had a few hours with the Pearl, but our first impression is favourable. The 240 x 260 portrait-mode screen is bright and clear (continuing the progress from the BlackBerry 8700 the last model I personally reviewed), and good for reading email. It also changes brightness according to ambient light. The device claims to have a standby time of 15 days and a talk time of 3.5 hours, which is good - though we have not tested this.
What is different?
To make the phone small and light, BlackBerry has turned its back on one of the best-known features of its devices so far - the thumbwheel. A thumbwheel would have made the device too thick, so it's been replaced by a trackball in the centre of the device.
This is not too dissimilar to the navigation devices on other phones, but feels (on a first impression) more responsive than the typical stubby joystick on a smartphone. The ball has a pleasant rough feeling, and moves easily. RIM says it’s the trackball that gave them the idea for the Pearl name.
There are two other big changes - both of them new features for BlackBerrys. There is removable storage in the form of a microSD card, and there is a camera.
The Pearl has 64MB of main storage, and can have up to 1GB on the microSD card, which fits into a holder inside the phone, under the battery and next to the SIM card.
The 1.3 megapixel camera is not a stand-out feature, but does the job. RIM believes that people don't expect a great camera on their phone, but insist on having one for spur--of-the-moment shots, or functional shots to record something. As such, the Pearl's camera is adequate, and has a working zoom and flash.
There is also a media player which won't put the iPod out of business, but plays music quite adequately.
Into BlackBerry world
The crucial factor, continually re-iterated by the RIM executives at the launch is that, whatever else it does, this is one hundred percent BlackBerry, with all the features users have come to expect.
In our brief tests, it sent and received emails and attachments just as well as its predecessors, and the overall BlackBerry environment has survived the move into phone-land very well.
BlackBerry users will find the familiar icons on the screen - along with new ones for the camera, and for Google Talk. The BlackBerry's escape key and the Menu key have been moved next to the trackball, in between the Send (green phone) and End (red phone) keys, usual on phones.
The company's SureType technology - familiar from previous smaller-format BlackBerrys since its launch in 2004, with the 7100 series - works easily. Like the familiar predictive text input on most phones, it overlays the letters of the alphabet on a numeric keypad, and thinks ahead to offer possible words. RIM decided not to put the letters in alphabetic order three to a key, like everyone else, but to stick to the qwerty layout, and add two extra columns of keys on the side, so there are only two letters to each key.
The result is a decent compromise between the size of the device and the size of the keys, and anyone sending a few emails with the device will get the hang of it pretty quickly.
The Bluetooth implementation is thorough and friendly - we paired it easily with other devices and transferred and displayed images. There is also a USB port and cable, which connects easily to PCs, where the device's SD card is visible as a Flash drive. When connected with USB, the device warns that it will not get enough power to re-charge, which is a disappointment.
Among the options RIM left on the cutting room floor are 3G and Wi-Fi, options which would have meant lower battery life, and a heavier device. As it is, it weighs less than Symbian and Windows Mobile phones we are aware of.
The company believes that size and weight will be the telling features in consumer smartphones, and has put its mind to delivering them. On the basis of this device, it could succeed.
If size is important, then RIM should do well with the Pearl, which - from a first look - really does combine the full BlackBerry experience with a decent phone, while making the whole thing small and sleek enough to attract consumers.