Given a choice between Research In Motion Ltd.s BlackBerry and Danger Inc.s Hiptop, any sensible user would choose the latter.
However, the trend shows that we arent going to be given the choice. Were just admiring the BlackBerry and watching Palm and others make deals with RIM to allow mail-push servers reach devices that arent BlackBerry handhelds. Were also seeing people in Europe, finally, start to accept the BlackBerry as a way of getting mobile e-mail.
But—and this is a big but—RIM is a corporate channel, and the BlackBerry is becoming almost a symbol of corporate serfdom.
The trouble is, there are some—no, a lot—of sad individuals who glory in their serfdom. Ask them who they are, and they wont say “Im Jennys Dad” or “Im a keen skier” or “We explore forests.” Instead, they claim to be “Biggus Diccus Inc. Product Management Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief” as if this were a personality trait. And pulling out the Biggus Diccus BlackBerry in the middle of a Sunday barbecue to deal with an “urgent e-mail” from the Assistant Chief Himself is a badge of honor, a token of status. It says, “You losers arent important when youre away from your desk, but my corporation needs me all the time.”
The Sidekick II has now arrived in Europe, and Danger is looking for a carrier. I happen to know it was looked at very carefully by Orange UK, a France Telecom subsidiary and one of Europes biggest carriers. Its not yet definite that Orange wont trial it more widely, but I fear the deal may not go through, even though it was met with enthusiasm by everybody inside Orange who has tried it.
For those loyal cubicle dwellers who would never dream of betraying their relationship with the corporate ball and chain, the Danger device is a bit like having a secret mistress.
It is branded as the Sidekick by T-Mobile in the United States and is sold as a way of giving mobile users all the e-mail they can eat. Flat-rate GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data means you can take pictures, mail them to anybody in the world, receive replies instantly, check your IM chat list, browse the Web, and generally behave as if life were a holiday.
Sidekick users are reported to have 10 times the data usage of other phone subscribers—a widely quoted statistic, but one I couldnt substantiate. And thats both a good thing and also the problem.
The good and the
The good thing: Everybody in the phone business knows that ARPU (average revenue per user) goes up if you get customers using data. The Sidekick user pays around $20 a month just for the data subscription. Some, clearly, use a lot more data than theyd normally get for that money, but most live well within the 20MB bracket youd expect for that.
So, is T-Mobile going to go for it in Europe? Maybe. In Europe, the Sidekick I was launched successfully—but not by T-Mobile. A mystery! Why ever not? After all Orange/France Telecom was a major investor in Danger three years ago. Why would Orange turn down the chance to get all this extra ARPU?
Its not a hard question to answer: It has to do with available bandwidth. And thats the problem.
In the United States, GPRS is still a minor pursuit. American cell-phone billing is a mess and growing a thriving data business on top of that seems to elude mobile operators, still.
But in Europe and other parts of the world where the GSM phone networks pervade, GPRS has actually turned into a real business channel. Its still my view that its a prototyping system for real mobile data systems, which will not be with us until 3G data is widespread. Nonetheless, several neat ideas have caught on. And the fact is, the capacity for this is stretched to the limit.
The “all you can eat” approach to data charging in North America works well. Theres plenty of “dark airwaves” waiting to be lit with GPRS traffic. By contrast, the European and African and Far Eastern GPRS channels are jammed and everybody is desperately waiting for wideband CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access)—or alternatives—to provide the capacity needed to expand.
The “Hiptop experience” has proved, for me, to be a far nicer and friendlier one than the Blackberry ball-and-chain approach. Also, the Sidekick is unquestionably easier to use.
But in a world of scarce resources, the big spender gets the deal. And the big spenders are the corporate e-mail server owners—both Exchange and RIM server owners, in particular. And the news of the month, for me, isnt the arrival of Danger in Europe because I really dont know that it will get on the road.
Instead, look at the deal between palmOne Inc. and Microsoft Corp., and the deal between PalmSource Inc. and RIM. Both mean that Palm users have access to corporate e-mail on RIM servers or on Exchange servers.
That means a lot more GPRS traffic, which simply isnt available in Europe. And that means Danger may be seen more as a liability to the operators, soaking up precious resources, than as an asset.
“All you can eat” is a great way of attracting the blue-collar trade. But most ambitious chefs would far rather have a few Armani-suited customers picking over exquisite delicacies in nouveau cuisine portions than see hordes of truckers tucking into the boeuf bourguignon with a spade.
A pity. I use my trial Sidekick II all the time and would keep it if I could. And I almost never used my BlackBerry. But the time may not be ripe.
Read Guy Kewneys other recent columns about trends in mobile and wireless technology.