Why RIM’s middleware is more important than the BlackBerry PlayBook

It’s sad when the IT industry pays more attention to a toy than something that could fundamentally change the game.

The BlackBerry PlayBook is a device which will raise a lot of questions around potential enterprise usage and competition with Apple’s iPad among knowledge workers. Yet it was Research In Motion’s announcement of BlackBerry Enterprise Middleware that should generate more buzz, at least among IT managers. For several years now there’s been some concern among analysts and users about whether RIM, in trying to catch up to Apple, was putting its traditional business customer base on the backburner in its quest for more fickle consumers. The middleware play, more than a piece of fancy hardware, should provide a more definitive rebuttal.

Also unveiled Monday was BlackBerry Enterprise Application Middleware, for easier development of “super app” enterprise applications and services for the BlackBerry. The middleware platform

Featuring APIs, libraries, and server software for easier building what RIM called “super apps,” BlackBerry Enterprise Application Middleware was quietly pitched as something developers could use to offer enterprise IT departments alerts, file transfer between other enterprise applications, instant data push and so on. None of this may sound as compelling as something you can hold in your hand with a shiny screen, but this could be an important contributor to RIM’s future growth. The company’s biggest quandary has not just been the iPhone but the question of whether someone will really use their BlackBerry for much beyond checking e-mail. For that, middleware is a key ingredient.

The concept of a “super-app” may not help matters, because at this point basically anything beyond calendaring and address books could be considered super. Buried in its press release around the middleware, however, was a quote from Charaka Kithulegoda, CIO at ING DIRECT Canada, who hinted at use-case scenarios in which registered users of its banking service could get information about account information, new products and service requests like applying for a loan or changing the credit limit on your credit card.

More importantly, RIM has gotten all the other big middleware players – including IBM, Oracle and SAP – on board. This means if you’re been developing an enterprise application based on Oracle’s Fusion Middleware, for example, or Big Blue’s WebSphere, that development platform could be extended to your company’s BlackBerry user base. Imagine how much easier it might be for IT department initiatives to get a green light if they could demonstrate mobile capabilities.

This isn’t to suggest RIM can completely ignore consumers. One danger of the BlackBerry and even the PlayBook is that it becomes known as the device on which you do the boring work stuff. But there is no doubt that consumers will begin to make purchasing decisions in part based on how their device can scale across their personal and professional lives. IT managers have traditionally been more friendly towards the BlackBerry, and have already made substantial investments in BES environments. It’s always easier to build on top of that than to suddenly turn yourself into an iPhone/iPad shop.

So go ahead: drool over the PlayBook. But IT managers need to point out to their users that with the right strategy, you can do a lot more than merely play with them.

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