Vodafone offers BlackBerry phone with smaller keyboard

European users are expected to be some of the first to get their fingers on BlackBerry handsets featuring a new keyboard technology that promises streamlined typing functionality on compact, converged devices.

The U.K.'s Vodafone Group said Thursday that it will introduce the new BlackBerry 7100v smart phone with the so-called SureType keyboard technology in the U.K. and Germany on October 1. After introduction in these two markets, the 7100v is set to be rolled out in Austria, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Australia, Vodafone said.

The 7100v is the second in a series of new handsets with SureType being introduced by BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM), as it aims to target business users with a combination mobile phone and wireless e-mail device that offers both a small form factor and easier typing.

The 7100 Series' SureType technology combines a phone keypad with a QWERTY keyboard layout that allows one-handed or two-handed typing, and works in conjunction with software designed to interpret keystrokes and recognize words, offering predictive text functions.

Vodafone's unveiling of the 7100v comes one week after T-Mobile USA said it would offer the first device in the series, the BlackBerry 7100t, in the U.S. in early October. However, a RIM spokesman in the U.K. said Thursday he expects the T-Mobile handset would be rolled out later in October.

In addition to SureType, Vodafone's 7100v handset offers quad-band international coverage, speakerphone, Bluetooth support, an internal antenna and 32M bytes of memory. The device is 11.9 centimeters long, 5.6 cm wide, 1.9 cm thick and weighs 120 grams.

Pricing varies according to users' tariff plans. U.K. subscribers of Vodafone's Anytime 400 voice minutes plan can get the new Blackberry for free, with a monthly e-mail charge, while subscribers of the Anytime 100 minute plan can get their hands on the 7100v for US$146.89 plus the monthly e-mail fee, according to Vodafone spokeswoman Janine Young.

In Germany, the smart phone will be offered for US$119.14 plus a one-off connection fee and monthly e-mail charge if the customer is on a 24-month business tariff plan, Young said.

Vodafone is hoping that the converged functionality of the 7100v, along with its compact size, will convince users that they only need one device while on the go, Young said.

For Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM, the device is also a bid to capture more of the European market, where it has seen slower growth than it has in the U.S.

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Scarlet Pruitt

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