Why BlackBerry Is Getting the Raspberry

By eweek  |  Posted 2003-05-02

Why BlackBerry Is Getting the Raspberry

Research in Motion was a little-known manufacturer of high-end paging devices—a David to Motorolas Goliath—when it began an odyssey into corporate messaging that started with the RIM 950. This device, with its boxy design, streamlined UI and trailblazing thumbboard, was the basic hardware on which RIM would build its famous BlackBerry service. For those who havent heard the jokes, BlackBerrys powers of addiction earned it the label "Crackberry," and its users telltale behavior of lowering their heads as they peered into the devices screen has been mockingly dubbed "the BlackBerry prayer."

While BlackBerry has attracted a fanatical following, though, its adoption shows that within corporate IT departments, the idea of BlackBerry holds more sway than its implementation. At just over 500,000 subscribers, RIM claims a tiny slice of corporate ITs mobile platforms. RIM cant even hide behind the general economic malaise of the past few years, since several research studies show that wireless has been one area where IT budgets have not suffered.

There have been a number of reasons for RIM resistance, including the price of the service, an installation procedure that attempts to interfere with the alignment of the planets Microsoft Exchange admins work weeks to achieve, and the usual FUD from Redmond on integrating ASP .Net mobile controls (or whatever nom du jour Microsoft has attached to Exchanges support for mobile devices). RIM tries to position the BlackBerry as an alternative to a laptop, but it really isnt. Indeed, such an argument may be pushing sales more toward Pocket PCs.

As a results, RIM has become better-known as a company with arrows in its back than on its keyboards. Indeed, while RIM has finally decided to start licensing its Exchange-synchronization technology, it is now competing against a slew of offerings from companies such as PalmSource, Extended Systems, Seven, Good Technology, and Synchrologic, the latter of which proclaims on its Web site that Pocket PC has surpassed RIM for mobile e-mail. On the hardware side, you can bet that the more consumer-focused Handspring and Danger Inc. will be taking their mini-keyboards to the enterprise side in due time.

Yet RIM is not simply a victim of its own success. The company deserves some of the blame for its fall from the grace of the mobile elite. While RIM has added a bigger screen, voice and support for multiple networks, the basic design of the BlackBerry devices remains the same—boring, black and all-business. Only this summer will AT&T Wireless unveil a RIM device in—wait for it—a blue case! The carrier is also offering RIM a chance to revamp its image by allowing users of the "proprietary networks" on which BlackBerry grew to prominence to trade up to the faster data rate the carriers GPRS network offers.

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Dells Good Deed

This week, RIM became one of the last major mobile device makers to preview, much less announce, color support for its devices. RIM has moved so slowly that Good has been able to release software that effectively replaces RIMs operating system on its own devices with one that is winning raves and key distribution partnerships. This week, Dell Computer announced that it would not only start selling GoodLinks (which are clearly "inspired" by the BlackBerry) but work with Good on future devices. This puts Good on board the Dell sales express train that has powered the adipose Axim to the #4 spot in the PDA market in its second quarter of availability.

Things look pretty grim for RIM. With such broad and aggressive operating system licensing from three major competitors—Microsoft, PalmSource and Symbian—the company cant really cling to a mobile messaging niche. Competition has turned that application into a feature. Especially given its limited resources, RIM must expand and extend its history of partnerships and find a way to leverage what IT success its had into a platform for developing other kinds of enterprise mobile apps.

Java is a good platform to offer IT developers, but how about embracing open-source developers the way Sharp did with its Linux-based Zaurus? Including an application like Trillian that will bridge multiple IM networks or one by Communicator Inc. to provide secure IM? Or licensing Flash to add some zing to that upcoming color model and even further lower the barrier to application development? On the hardware side, when will RIM add any kind of local network connectivity? If RIM doesnt do something radical soon to broaden its appeal, BlackBerry devices could soon become no more than hosts for the soul of a new machine, one powered by an upstart competitor.

Will the brains behind BlackBerry break out of their rut or is RIM shot? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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