Handhelds Get New Voice Functions

Egged on by wireless carriers that want products that take full advantage of upcoming networks, more messaging device makers are building voice capabilities into their handhelds.

Egged on by wireless carriers that want products that take full advantage of upcoming networks, more messaging device makers are building voice capabilities into their handhelds.

While users may welcome such functionality in theory, many said that because of the myriad competing wireless network standards, the additional technology in such devices as Research In Motion Ltd.s BlackBerry will only create an even wider array of futuristic devices, many of which will be unusable on most networks.

RIM has added voice support to its popular BlackBerry e-mail device, which will let customers check e-mail and talk on the phone at the same time. The device, which runs on the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) platform, includes a jack for an ear bud-type headset, though the voice capabilities are not yet active in Europe.

Sources close to the Toronto-based company said that European carriers asked that RIM put voice support into the devices to take advantage of the fact that their GPRS networks will eventually support both voice and data.

"Its a matter of Because we can, we will and Because we will, theyll want," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "RIM [doesnt] ship it with voice turned on. They were concerned about positioning the product and confusing the market."

VoiceStream Wireless Corp., which plans to offer service for the BlackBerry on GPRS in the United States, wants voice support for the BlackBerry as well, sources said. This despite the fact that GPRS networks are not expected to be deployed across the country until the middle of next year.

Meanwhile, Motorola Inc. is so intent on supporting messaging devices with voice capability that it is discontinuing its traditional pager business. Motorolas Personal Communications Sector will stop distributing products based on the Reflex protocol, such as the Talkabout T900, Timeport P935 and its one-way paging products, which run on data-only networks, in the middle of next year, officials said.

Motorola officials said the company wants to focus on devices that combine voice and messaging capabilities, such as its upcoming Accompli 009, which Motorola previewed last week at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco. Shaped like a traditional pager, the 5.7-ounce device enables Short Message Service, wireless e-mail and phone functions via a GPRS network. Like the BlackBerry, it includes a keyboard and a jack for a headset, but it also includes a full-color display and support for Java 2 Micro Edition so users can download applications from the Internet.

The device will be available before the end of this month for about $600, according to Motorola officials in Schaumburg, Ill. It will eventually be available through VoiceStream Wireless, of Bellevue, Wash., and Cingular Wireless once their GPRS systems are deployed.

Devices such as the voice-enabled BlackBerry and the Accompli will compete against devices such as Handspring Inc.s Treo (which looks like a phone and runs Palm Inc.s Palm OS) and various upcoming smart phones from Nokia Corp. and Ericsson AB.

Devices such as the BlackBerry and Motorolas previous two-way pagers already had the lions share of the messaging market. But as phone makers add messaging to their handsets, theres increased pressure to make their devices act like phones.

"There are different groups of users using different devices for different purposes," said Jo Posti, spokeswoman for the Personal Communications Sector, in Boynton Beach, Fla.

"I believe the perfect device is that which combines multiple functions without sacrificing individual quality and functionality," said Nick Gass, systems administrator at Color Kinetics Inc., a digital lighting company in Boston. "When a product comes out thats a great phone, its easy to send and receive e-mails and can store my contacts, thats when Ill buy."