The New Handheld Killer App Found at Last

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For several years, handheld sales were weak. This is because they were in need of a new killer app.

“Killer app” is a term first coined by Apple’s Steve Jobs to refer to a single use that will cause people to buy a product. For the original PCs, it was the spreadsheet. The killer app for the Macintosh was desktop publishing.

When handhelds were first introduced, most people bought them for personal information management (PIM). Millions of people gave up their Day Runners and bought a Palm Pilot.

However, just about everyone who wants to keep track of their schedule and address book with a handheld has already bought one. This is why the handheld market leveled off — and even declined a bit — for a couple of years. Most of the handhelds being sold were going to people who were upgrading.

Then something came along that gets people in droves to go out and get handhelds: wireless email.

I know this isn’t a new feature. Hard-core handheld users have been doing this for years. But only one company has figured out the right combination of hardware and software to change wireless email from a nifty feature for experts into a killer app. I’m speaking, of course, about Research in Motion and its BlackBerry line of wireless handhelds.

After years of relative obscurity, RIM has suddenly taken off like a rocket. It took many years to sell the first million BlackBerries. RIM sold its second million in 10 months. So many BlackBerries are being sold that the market research firm Gartner predicts RIM is going to become the number one handheld company in the world this year.

The Secret of RIM’s Success

RIM’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed by the other handheld makers, and they are scrambling to imitate it.

However, many companies are putting out devices that are missing one or both of the critical features. Without these, their devices can’t hope to be as successful as the BlackBerry.

First off, just having wireless email isn’t enough. It has to be push email. This means that as soon as an incoming email arrives on the server, it is pushed out to the device, and the user is immediately notified of it.

BlackBerry 7230 Many people find this addictive. They love knowing that they’ll know the instant an email arrives, and not find out about it some time in the future.

RIM has a system that is the gold standard of push email. Fortunately, handheld makers don’t have to come up with their own system, as RIM is happy to license its own.

The second absolutely required feature is easy text input. That’s why all BlackBerry handhelds have an integrated QWERTY keyboard.

HP recently learned this lesson. Its iPAQ h6300 offered push email but not a built-in keyboard. Even though it came with a clip-on keyboard, many people weren’t satisfied. This is why its successor, the iPAQ hw6500, is going to include a built-in keyboard.

Once more companies start making handhelds that offer both push email and built-in keyboards, they’ll start selling devices at the same rate RIM does.

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