BlackBerry without the BlackBerry

Less than a week after a network outage crippled BlackBerry users across North America, Research In Motion announced an application pack for Windows Mobile 6 devices that Canadian software developers said will intensify the competition for push e-mail.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based firm said the BlackBerry Application suite will appear as an icon on the screen of the Mobile Windows device and load BlackBerry applications such as e-mail, phone, calendar, address book, tasks, memos, browser, and instant messaging. RIM said users will easily be able toggle between the two platforms, one of which would have a BlackBerry-style interface. The devices will connect via the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) used by corporate clients or the BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS). Pricing and final shipment dates were not given. RIM did not return requests for interviews at press time.

Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of Field Performance Group in Georgetown, Ont., said his firm uses BlackBerry devices internally by its IT support people. Field Performance Group designs and manages Mobile Field Force Automation Systems for corporate clients.

“RIM’s going head to head with [Microsoft Corp.] on push e-mail. I don’t know which side has the stronger application,” he said. “Certainly RIM has the bigger user base right now. Microsoft is relying on people to have Exchange servers up and running to have push e-mail, and those aren’t always easy to manage.”

This will not be the first time that RIM has attempted to put its software on other manufacturers’ devices. Through its BlackBerry Connect program, RIM has been offering access to its wireless e-mail services on devices manufactured by Nokia Corp. and Treo Inc. But the service is focused mostly on providing access to BlackBerry e-mail through the devices’ existing applications, said Carmi Levy, an analyst with Info-Tech Research Group.

“It was almost like the first shot for deploying some kind of BlackBerry service on non-BlackBerry hardware. It has succeeded in proving the concept,” he said. “It’s important for RIM because [of] its production model. Similar to Apple in early days of the Mac, it always did the hardware. That, at some point as you grow the subscriber base, is a constraint to further growth.”

The application suite will provide another low barrier to entry opportunity for uncommitted mobile users in both the consumer and enterprise segment, Levy added. “It’s almost like a try-before-you buy. They don’t need to buy the hardware.”

Carl Rodrigues, CTO of mobile management ISV SOTI Inc. in Richmond Hill, Ont., argued that Microsoft “closed the door” on RIM when it began offering its own push e-mail in Windows Mobile 5. One of RIM’s remaining advantages is how the BES allows IT departments to define use policies on devices. For example, a policy might lock out a user who enters the wrong password several times.

“The advantage, I would think, is that company who already deploys RIM devices,” he said. “If those can be managed under that same platform with the same policies, you won’t have to worry about configuring a Windows Mobile device.”

Bradshaw said most companies look at the BlackBerry as a standalone platform. That could change if the application suite takes off.

“Users who want to go into a mobile environment, whether in retail or wherever, don’t want to carry a cell phone or pager,” he said. “Anything that brings those together is useful.”

Levi said Windows Mobile 6 is the biggest threat to the BlackBerry’s future. “Microsoft is engaged in a full-court effort to build out its mobile environment and make it a success. They’ve been hacking away it for the better part of 11 years,” he said. “They finally have a product in Win Mobile 6 that’s as technically competitive as any they’ve ever released.”

Levi said he expected RIM to extend is BlackBerry Application suite to Symbian and Palm devices.

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