BlackBerry: Device or Technology?

by Reads (11,362)


Editor’s Note: This article, first published in April 2002, seems timely, based on Handspring’s recent announcement that it would be using RIM’s email technology. Question is, will Palm join in as a RIM licensee?


If you’ve always thought of a BlackBerry as a cool, handheld wireless device, think again. According to its developers, Ontario-based Research In Motion (RIM), BlackBerry is more a technology than a device; a technology that will work just as well in other companies’ devices as its own. And that’s just what it hopes with happen, according to last week’s press release.

However, if you’ve been following Brighthand for the past year, this should come as no surprise. RIM COO Larry Conlee told Brighthand last September at the Wireless Summit II in Atlanta that RIM is not a device company but an "enabler" of other companies’ wireless strategies. And its popular BlackBerry handheld? "Simply a viewing agent," added Mr. Conlee.But the most revealing news came when Mr. Conlee said that RIM would soon be licensing its architecture to others for incorporation in its devices. After all, he pointed out, wireless email is RIM’s core business, not devices.

Partnering to create a solid platform

Behind the scenes, RIM has been working with several key partners, including Motorola, Analog Devices, and Sun Microsystems, to create a highly marketable wireless voice and data platform.

They’ve come up with an integrated processor capable of running both Java applications and wireless voice and data communications. This creates a solid platform that supports RIM’s wireless email and intranet software, as well as Java-based applications from enterprise software companies such as Siebel Systems, Cognos, and Computer Associates.

In March, RIM announced its first handheld device that operates on this platform, the BlackBerry 5810. And unlike previous BlackBerry devices that run on the narrowband DataTAC and Mobitex networks, the 5810 can utilize VoiceStream Wireless’ 2.5G GSM/GPRS network.

Yes, this BlackBerry’s also a phone.

Plus, there’s a BlackBerry model on the way that will work on the Motorola iDEN network used by Nextel, so it will support two-way radio communications as well as voice and data calls.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and Palm are not sitting still.

Microsoft has two wireless platforms: Smartphone 2002 and Pocket PC Phone Edition. While both are capable of using the "always on" GPRS networks being rolled out this year in the United States, Microsoft’s wireless email solution is not as mature as RIM’s, and it’s unlikely that Microsoft will support standard Java on either of its platforms. It’s also not clear whether Microsoft, along with either Texas Instruments or Intel, will be able to offer an integrated OEM chipset and software solution as complete as RIM’s to its licensees. And let’s not forget that some companies are simply leery of partnering with Microsoft in this important new market.

Handheld market leader Palm, through its PalmSource subsidiary, is fine-tuning the latest version of its operating system, Palm OS 5, with Palm OS 6 also in the works. It plans to support wireless voice and data at some point, but details are sketchy as to when. Also, it’s unclear whether the Palm.net wireless technology used by its i705 handheld is the domain of Palm, Inc. or its licensing vehicle, PalmSource, Inc., so its licensees, namely Sony and Handspring, will more than likely have to develop solutions of its own.

But even if Palm and Microsoft succeed in matching RIM’s "always on" wireless with email automatically "pushed" to the device, RIM still has a trump card. It holds a key patent on wireless single mailbox integration that others would have to license.

Possible BlackBerry licensees

So who would be interested in incorporating RIM’s BlackBerry technology in its devices? Well, neither RIM nor Analog Devices would name names, but Analog Devices counts many top manufacturers on its client list, including Toshiba, Hitachi and Compaq. Even an unlikely competitor like Palm (read the editorial listed below, Should Palm License BlackBerry?), Handspring, or Sony for that matter, would make a good candidate. Licensing RIM’s BlackBerry technology would allow it to free some of its engineers from maintaining and upgrading its own integrated wireless email solution and concentrate on developing compelling new PDAs.

It’s time to walk the talk

So far it’s only words; now RIM must do the hard part: walk the talk.

The first step involves focusing on its core business–wireless always-on email–by broadly licensing its BlackBerry technology to manufacturers. This will help RIM expand its market presence (it currently has less than 300,000 subscribers), something it may struggle with on its own.

Eventually RIM should exit the handheld device market entirely and leave the "device wars" up to the big boys: Compaq, Sony, Toshiba, Palm, and Nokia. Yes, it’s a big step. But it may be the only way to enable RIM to continue its domination of the wireless email niche. If not, it may find itself becoming an increasingly smaller fish in a big pond. A pond filled with sharks.

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