NEW YORK - It's hard to remember now, but the first BlackBerry devices weren't phones. They were two-way e-mail pagers that couldn't be used for calls.
Now a New York-based startup is betting it can fill the niche the BlackBerry abandoned. It has made a sleek, $100 e-mail pager called the Peek that hits Target Corp. stores Monday.
The goal of the Peek is to reach the people who don't already have e-mail on their phones and may be intimidated by today's feature-rich "smart" phones, like BlackBerrys, BlackJacks and iPhones. The Peek does e-mail and nothing more: no phone calls, no Web surfing, no camera. The service fee is $20 a month, with no contract.
Conscious minimalism is rare in gadgets, and usually welcome. But it's hard to see the Peek being a big hit. If you do one thing, you're supposed to do it well, and I have a few too many reservations about the Peek.
But to start with the good, the hardware is tasteful. The tablet, 4 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide, is covered by rubber on the front and metal on the back. It has a full-alphabet keyboard with generous spacing between the keys for easy typing. The keys are backlit. The color screen is sharp and relatively large, with a 2.5-inch diagonal. It's not touch-sensitive, so you control the device with a scroll wheel on the side, just like older BlackBerrys.
It's reasonably easy to set up for the Web-based e-mail services of Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. The service fee compares well to the data plans that are required for e-mail service on a cell phone. These are usually around $30 a month, in addition to the voice plan. Peek Inc. founder Amol Sarva assures me that there's nothing tacked on to the monthly fee, unlike cell phone bills, where a $70 monthly plan comes in as $80 or so.
So what's not to like? Well, the Peek is slow. It's partly because it's sluggish to react to the user (perhaps because the processor is a model called "LoCosto" — not a joke), partly because the interface is a bit cumbersome. You need to do at least three things to start creating a new e-mail: press the wheel in, roll it down one step, press again.
The Peek is also slow to get new e-mail. It checks for new e-mail every four or five minutes, and when I tested it, it sometimes took even longer for new messages to show up on the device. This makes it impossible to conduct quick back-and-forth exchanges, which you can do with BlackBerrys and several other e-mail-enabled phones.
The Peek can receive and show pictures attached to e-mails, but because it uses one of the slowest still-extant wireless data networks, the images take forever to appear ("forever" is defined as 90 seconds when it comes to waiting for a picture to appear after you've clicked on it).
The Peek isn't really designed to get office e-mail. You can get it if your corporate e-mail servers have unusually lax security settings. If they don't, you could forward your work e-mail automatically to a free Web-based account connected to the Peek, but if your IT department catches you doing this, they will consider you a risky character and glower at you in the hallways.
Also, the Peek's software is not upgradable. This is going to limit the company's ability to fix bugs and introduce new features, though it does have some leeway because it manages the servers that relay the mail. Sarva said the company is looking at providing more support for corporate e-mail, and possibly instant messaging and text messaging.
Despite its limited capabilities, the Peek's battery life is not outstanding. My test indicated that the Peek needs to be charged at least every other day if in use, and possibly every day. That makes it more of a hassle to carry this extra device.
So even though the Peek is relatively simple and inexpensive, I think most people would be better off with a smart phone.
The people who would be best served by this device are those who have a cell phone but don't use it much and are on a prepaid plan. Prepaid service, and the phones that come along with it, are otherwise tough to combine with mobile e-mail. For these people, the Peek will do an acceptable if not outstanding job, and since there's no contract, it's a comparatively inexpensive thing to try. It does one thing, and it does it just OK.