Research in Motion is reported to be working on a Wi-Fi enabled version of its Blackberry email device, joining the trend for adding Wi-Fi so GPRS devices can use the faster speed and lower cost of of 802.11 wireless LAN access at hotspots. Most recently, it emerged that Microsoft's smartphone will have Wi-Fi.

RIM is testing the Wi-Fi Blackberry, and will formally launch it in the Spring of 2004, most likely at the 3GSM conference in France, in February, according to statements from RIM CEO Jim Balsillie, and marketing vice president Mark Guibert.

"We weren't really planning to talk about it for a while, but it's a bit predictable that we would do this - it's just another transport," Balsillie told eWeek. "We're essentially aiming to extend the key benefits and competitive differentiators of BlackBerry to 802.11 environments," said Guibert. The Blackberry majors on data, not voice, which is the main purpose of Wi-Fi hotspots, and users have said that the speed and availability of GPRS data is the biggest drawback to using Blackberries.

Although the Blackberry does handle voice, RIM will not have the same urgent need to negotiate the technical issues of handling voice over Wi-Fi. However, the device is "phone-like" in that it is purpose-built and not expandable like other devices. Users will have to wait for the Wi-Fi version, rather than expand existing models with SDIO cards as PDA and smartphone owners can.

The benefits of Wi-Fi may be diluted by the interests of the operators that supply Blackberries. If the Wi-Fi device routes traffic over the cheapest route available, this would affect revenue to the operator who sells the device. The devices will be limited to Wi-Fi access at hotspots run by their own operator (such as T-Mobile), or other hotspots (such as the Cloud) made available by deals through that operator.

The move to put Wi-Fi into smaller devices has provoked chip vendors to make low-power Wi-Fi chipsets. Vendors here include Philips, Atheros, Broadcom and Intel, with National Semiconductor announcing a low-power Wi-Fi chipset this week.

Blackberry's colour version was recently launched in the UK by both O2 and T-Mobile.