Competitors set sights on RIM

Although far from a market leader in number of units sold, the Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry device is credited with setting the standard for what users, both corporate and consumer, want in a handheld device.

The diminutive RIM BlackBerry’s two distinctive features-always-on access to e-mail and a built-in keyboard-are only now being copied and promoted by its competitors. With the introduction of the BlackBerry 5810, which includes a fully functional GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) cellular phone, RIM hopes to stay one step ahead in the design race.

Unfortunately for the Toronto-based company, that does not appear to be the case. Earlier this year Handspring, in Mountain View, Calif., introduced the Treo 180 to pull even with RIM. The device has full cell phone and PIM (personal information manager) capabilities, plus a keyboard and the popular Palm OS, giving users access to thousands of Palm applications. The Treo 270 was introduced late last month and may put Handspring a step ahead of RIM. It features full-colour display and its own version of corporate e-mail, TreoMail service for access to Exchange Server.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Danger’s hiptop device, which is small and cheap and has a horizontal form factor that appears made for Web browsing, also has a keyboard and built-in GSM cellular service.

“With a (US)$199 price point, a server solution to the carriers, and the horizontal screen, the device is very compelling,” said David Hayden, CEO of MobileWeek, in Palo Alto, Calif.

Tim Scannell, president of Quincy, Mass.-based Shoreline Research, believes Danger’s hiptop will set the design standard for wireless handhelds, as did BlackBerry before it.

“We’ll see radical design changes in the next year and more devices like the Danger hiptop,” Scannell said.

One RIM competitor in particular may strike close to home. Good Technology promises that BlackBerry users can keep their beloved devices; all they need do is download the Good browser and OS, which will strip away the RIM OS.

Good’s hook is its server-side always-on e-mail capability, which reduces cost and complexity by eliminating the need for a desktop redirector. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Good is also set to offer its own hardware device, but the business model focuses on software and service.

According to Dan Papes, vice president of the wireless services unit at IBM Global Services in Somers, N.Y., the RIM BlackBerry is still a good option for e-mail. But if more complex applications are needed, users should consider Pocket PC devices.

“We see the iPaq coming on strong. The Palm OS [is] losing ground,” Papes said. One reason for this slip is that as applications grow more complex, the Pocket PC 2002 OS’s multitasking capability becomes valuable.

“That multitasking environment means you can do several things at once. [Pocket PCs] are not limited, and remember, they are based on a well-understood operating system-Windows,” Scannell said.

The new Palm OS 5, which will ship later this month, does include some multitasking capability. Still, a number of ISVs are expressing reservations about its usability because Palm had to limit the multi-tasking capability to be backward-compatible with its older OS.

But the number of applications available still makes Palm a strong contender, and the recently introduced i705 answered many critics’ questions about Palm’s wireless capability. The i705 includes IM (instant messaging), SMS (Short Message Service) messages, and wireless email, and Palm is offering its own add-on keyboard.

Faced with the onslaught of mobile solutions, IT managers looking to select the right device are more hard-pressed than ever, according to IBM’s Papes.

“Wireless technology uses complex standards, and there are not a lot of dominant products in the market today,” Papes said.”IT must also keep in mind what middleware is available and how it will interface with hosting and legacy IT systems.”