Wi-Fi BlackBerry in Works

RIM is testing BlackBerrys that can roam between 802.11, or Wi-Fi, WLANs and wide-area cellular networks.

Research in Motion Ltd. is building BlackBerry messaging devices that run over wireless LANs, company officials confirmed last week.

RIM, of Waterloo, Ontario, has started testing BlackBerrys that can roam between 802.11, or Wi-Fi, WLANs and wide-area cellular networks.

"Weve been working on Wi-Fi for a long time," said Jim Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of RIM. "We werent really planning to talk about it for a while, but its a bit predictable that we would do this—its just another transport."

Balsillie declined to say when a Wi-Fi BlackBerry will hit the market but said it wont be before the spring. He acknowledged that such a device is in the companys labs and that it works. "For sure, weve demonstrated it to key customers and partners," Balsillie said. "This is not a way-out-there thing."

RIMs BlackBerry devices provide wireless access to corporate e-mail and other data via BlackBerry Enterprise Server—server-side software that sits behind the customers firewall. Last year, the company introduced devices that also act as cell phones and, at the same time, stepped up its relationships with carrier partners to offer BlackBerrys that run on Integrated Digital Enhanced Network, Code Division Multiple Access and GSM/GPRS (Global System for Mobile Communications/General Packet Radio Service) networks. (Originally, BlackBerrys ran solely on the Mobitex data network.)

Wi-Fi support will mean customers can experiment with voice over IP on their BlackBerry devices, but the target audience is the user who wants e-mail access while moving around the corporate campus.

RIM customers welcomed the idea of a BlackBerry that can run on Wi-Fi—especially those customers who are happy with their devices but unhappy with their WAN coverage.

"That has been the biggest downer," said Robert Rosen, CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., which supports BlackBerry 6710 devices on T-Mobile USA Inc.s GSM/GPRS network. While a GSM/GPRS network allows traveling NIH officials to connect to their e-mail even when they are in Europe, coverage at home has been spotty, Rosen said.

"You go into the hospital building, and both the data and cell phone connections to the BlackBerry stop working," said Rosen, who is also an eWEEK Corporate Partner. "The head of my systems team says it works fine in her driveway, but she walks in her house and she loses coverage. If, in theory, you could switch to the internal [WLAN] network, that would be ideal."

In addition to adding Wi-Fi to its own product line, RIM will add WLAN support to its BlackBerry Connect licensing program. Launched in March, the program lets competing companies equip their handsets with the ability to connect to BlackBerry Enterprise Server using the same push architecture that BlackBerry devices use.

RIM also earlier this year announced plans to enable BlackBerry Enterprise Server connectivity to devices that run Symbian Ltd.s Symbian OS, PalmSource Inc.s Palm OS, or Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC or Smartphone operating systems. No such devices have appeared yet, but Balsillie indicated they will likely start to appear at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, in February.

"If anyone is going to announce anything based on [BlackBerry Connect], it will be there," he said.