iPhone lessons from the BlackBerry Pearl

I don’t think Apple ever officially called the iPhone a BlackBerry killer, but even Steve Jobs probably didn’t see its device as a BlackBerry booster.

And yet, based on the financial results Research In Motion released this week, it’s hard to interpret things any other way. The Pearl obviously helped matters, but there’s no one was sleeping on the street overnight outside a store waiting for the Pearl to arrive, as they did for the iPhone. The Pearl did not get an average of hundreds of articles written about it prior to launch, as Apple’s handset did. Until very recently, RIM was an enterprise-focused company, in part because the BlackBerry was (and still kinda is) expensive. The Pearl changed that, but so did the fact that the iPhone got a lot more people thinking about what a communications device should do.

RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie told financial analysts that 50 per cent of the company’s net new subscriber account additions in the fourth quarter came from non-enterprise customers, and about 38 per cent of the firm’s BlackBerry subscriber base fell into the non-enterprise category at the end of the business year. That’s huge, but it doesn’t mean that business people aren’t buying the BlackBerry anymore. They’re just buying it with things other than business in mind.

Unlike the iPhone, which remains an object of fantasy for Canadians, the BlackBerry is readily available and comes from a line of devices with a highly regarded track record among demanding users. It’s less innovative in terms of design, but familiarity with an interface never hurt any other vendors. The Pearl, in some ways, came with far fewer expectations than the BlackBerry, and as a result its success seems that much greater. Unlike the iPhone, there’s much less chance of a backlash.

The question for RIM now is to capitalize on its entry into the consumer space by realizing how those new users will be affecting the IT environment of its traditional enterprise customers. A lot of companies are grappling with the fact that unknown devices are coming behind the firewall and being used for all kinds of purposes outside of an IT usage policy. The Pearl is likely to be one of those devices, and although it’s intended for personal use RIM might eventually need to help IT departments extend the management capabilities of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server to deal with it.

This is one of the issues facing Microsoft, which this week launched an update to its Windows Mobile operating system. Graham Chalk, manager of data strategy and support at Telus Mobility, put it to me this way: “Eight to 10 years ago, it was ‘IT rules’ in terms of what device you used,” he said. “Now it’s more of a collaborative effort.”

RIM originally made a name for itself by creating a device that made business computing much more personal again. Now, with the Pearl, it will need focus on making personal computing work better within businesses.

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