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RIM Tosses a New Curve Into Smartphone Market

Research in Motion returns to its traditional BlackBerry roots with the launch of its latest Curve smartphone this week.

The Curve 8320, which is the smallest and lightest BlackBerry at this point, offers up the beloved full QWERTY keyboard and is the second in RIM's five-handset Curve 8300 series to provide Wi-Fi.

It marks a switch in feature direction, given RIM's Storm that exchanged the typical BlackBerry keyboard for a two-touch display and offered 3G capability and other iPhone-like aspects.

The new Curve arrives as smartphone makers scramble to provide in-demand device features and functionalities amidst a crowded product marketplace. While analyst reports indicate smartphone growth is slowing due to the turbulent U.S. economy, devices are necessary tools for personal and workplace productivity.

That growing dependence is tied to enhanced network connectivity, according to experts. Faster and more reliable Internet access via Wi-Fi and 3G networks is driving user Web activity.

A recent AdMob Mobile Metrics report states Wi-Fi use is on a growth curve, with iPhone users leading the charge. In the U.S., eight percent of total requests in November were on Wi-Fi networks, up from three percent in August, according to the report. The statistics indicate that 42 percent of iPhone requests are made from Wi-Fi, notably higher than most other Wi-Fi-capable phones that average between 10 to 20 percent.

Wi-Fi connectivity, according to iPhone's exclusive wireless carrier AT&T (NYSE: T), is a must-have handset feature these days. RIM (NASDAQ: RIMM) also provides Wi-Fi capability in its Curve 8350i and a higher-end Curve product, the 8900.

AT&T said the Curve 8320 provides users access to more than 17,000 AT&T hot spots nationwide as well as home and campus Wi-Fi networks. Customers subscribed to unlimited corporate or personal BlackBerry service plans can access the hot spots for no charge, according to an AT&T press release. It's priced at $149.99 with a two-year data services commitment and will be available in early 2009.

The BlackBerry Personal Unlimited data plan starts at $30 a month and users must also subscribe to a call plan. Unlimited corporate e-mail and data access via BlackBerry Enterprise Server or BlackBerry Professional Software for small businesses starts at $45 a month in addition to a voice plan.

RIM said the BlackBerry Curve 8320 offers an improved user interface and support for HTML e-mail, and lets users download attachments as well as edit Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files using a preloaded DataViz Documents To Go software.

The handset offers a slightly larger Blackberry display, expandable memory of up to 16GB via a microSD/SDHC memory card slot and, when used with a separate Bluetooth-enabled GPS receiver, provides access to the AT&T Navigator and telephone directory mobile services.