NEW YORK -- BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. today unveiled a new version of its top-end e-mail phone for business users, replacing the signature side navigation wheel with a front trackball that first appeared last year on the consumer-oriented BlackBerry Pearl.
The BlackBerry 8800 will be offered in the United States by AT&T Inc.'s Cingular Wireless starting Feb. 21, priced at $300 with a two-year contract commitment.
The new device enters a far more crowded market for multifunction "smart" phones than the 8700 did when it was launched in late 2005. Back then, the main competition was Palm Inc.'s Treo, while lower-priced BlackBerry-like entrants from Motorola Inc., Nokia Corp., and Samsung Electronics Co. had not yet arrived.
RIM is billing the 8800 as the thinnest BlackBerry to date, measuring 0.55 inch from front to back. That's just a hair thinner than the Pearl's 0.57-inch thickness, but 0.2 inch thinner than the 8700 model that the 8800 will replace over time. The 8800 is also a shade narrower than the 8700 from right to left, but slightly taller.
Other features include the ability to pick up signals from Global Positioning System, or GPS, satellites for location tracking. The device comes installed with BlackBerry Maps, an application that can use the GPS signal to provide driving directions as well as integrate with other applications to, for example, send a map via e-mail.
The 8800 also comes with a media player and an external storage slot for removable microSD memory cards.
Jim Balsillie, RIM cochief executive, said it wasn't a tough decision to switch to the front trackball and ditch the sidewheel -- which has been used to scroll through e-mail on every BlackBerry model except the Pearl since the BlackBerry and its predecessors were introduced in the 1990s.
"The response to the trackball has been universally positive," said Balsillie, noting that 80 percent of the non phone usage on the Pearl involves multimedia. "If it's just messaging, it's just up-down, left-right. But if you're going to do multimedia, the navigation aspects become more prominent."