BlackBerry Pearl is the smartphone of the future

Here's a column written entirely on the Pearl: welcome to the future

Like today's best smart phones, the pocket communication gadget of the future will be an "everything device." At a minimum, it will function as a laptop, digital camera, video-capable media player, voice recorder, handheld, speakerphone and more. But unlike today's bulky, boxy, bloated Treos, BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smart phones, future offerings will be as tiny, thin, light and sleek as the smallest of today's not-so-smart phones.

Tomorrow's smart phones will be more like a Hershey bar and less like a grilled-cheese sandwich.

RIM's BlackBerry 8100, the PearlDon't look now, but the smart phone of the future has arrived. RIM's BlackBerry 8100, the Pearl, is the first of a radical new generation of smart phones.

The Pearl is revolutionary

The impact, or importance, of every groundbreaking device for shaping the direction of mobile electronics is clear only in hindsight. It's hard to remember now, but when the radical, influential devices first shipped -- the Sony Walkman, the Palm Pilot, the RIM BlackBerry, the Apple iPod -- it wasn't immediately clear that these products would dominate their markets and influence the direction of mobile electronics.

The Pearl is just such a groundbreaking, genre-killing, trendsetting device. And although the Pearl is getting rave reviews, its full impact has not yet registered with the pundits or the public. It will. This phone is destined for fame and glory.

I'm the quintessential frequent flier, and I've long used the behavior of business travelers on airplanes as a kind of field laboratory for monitoring trends in mobile computing. That's where, for example, I first witnessed in the early 1990s people playing games on their laptops, and in the early years of this decade, people watching rented DVDs on their laptops. It's where I discovered that people would actually watch movies and TV shows on their iPods.

What's currently turning heads aloft now is the BlackBerry Pearl. In the past two months, I've seen a conspicuously large number of impromptu "demos" of the Pearl taking place on airplanes. Someone starts using it, then someone else nearby asks what it is and gets the demo. The Pearl's owner is always rabidly enthusiastic. The other person is always blown away. I haven't seen this kind of enthusiasm on an airplane since the iPod.

I see the BlackBerry Pearl, released on T-Mobile in October and Cingular this month, as the first major fourth-generation mobile phone. First generation: cell phones that didn't feel anything like today's small, sleek, pocket-size cell phones. Second generation: regular cell phones, but small and sleek. Third generation: "smart phones" that combined handheld functionality with the cell phone, but felt like handhelds, not phones. The Pearl is the first major example of the fourth generation: full-featured smart phones that feel like tiny cell phones.

The Pearl, at 4.2 x 2 x 0.6 inches and about 3.5 ounces, is about the size of a closed Motorola Razr -- a "dumb" phone famous for how thin it is.

The Pearl is radical

The ongoing smart phone battle is largely waged between Palm and Research In Motion. For a few years, both companies have offered a range of heavy, flat, wide, large-screen, full-keyboard phone-handheld devices. RIM has also sold a line of phone-like devices, but with limited functionality.

The current crop of devices reveals a sudden differentiation between RIM and Palm. RIM's new offering features bold innovation. Palm's represents more of the same old thing.

The newest Palm Treos are great devices, with a host of "tweaks" that fix minor problems and annoyances with older models. But they're neither taking any risks nor breaking new ground. They're all the same old Treo, with small improvements.

That's not the case with the Pearl. I believe three features made BlackBerries famous: 1) pager-like e-mail that notifies you when you've got a message, 2) RIM's patented QWERTY keyboard design and 3) scroll-wheel navigation.

The Pearl is radical because the phone completely abandons two of these three features. That's very bold.

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