BlackBerry boss leaves techies wanting

BlackBerry users offer more insights than CEO at RIM's annual user conference

If 5,000 dedicated enterprise BlackBerry users attending Research in Motion's annual user conference, Wireless Enterprise Symposium, were expecting any red meat from Research in Motion Co-CEO Michael Lazaridis' opening keynote address, they went away hungry.

Lazaridis, in a muted gray suit and a patterned light-blue tie, gave a muted speech, generously interlaced with marketing and customer testimonial videos. He started with a few facts, as astounding as they were simple. RIM has sold 28 million BlackBerry handhelds, 14 million of them in the last 12 months. That figure makes RIM the No. 1 smartphone vendor in market share in the United States and No. 2 worldwide, he said.

But what followed was a letdown, at best suggestive that smartphones increasingly tied to business and consumer applications and services are in the process of transforming work and lives in unexpected ways.

"It was OK," says Michael Federico, an IT analyst for Connectiv Engery, an energy trading and generation company, with about 110 BlackBerries deployed. "It seemed like a good advertising speech in terms of their dedication to the whole thing. But as a technical person, I was looking for some more details."

There were at best hints. Lazaridis briefly talked about the "maintenance free" BlackBerry. That got the attention of the IT managers in the audience. Over the air programming and activation has been around for a while, according to Federico. But more can be done. "When we get BlackBerries, we [in IT] have to get them first," he says. "We activate them, put some corporate applications on them, and so on."

What would be far better is to have the devices shipped directly to users, who call an IT support staffer, who turns on the devices, and they're ready to use. "I like that," Federico says. "It would lower the cost of deploying and maintaining the units."

The same idea appeals to Brent Hiltscher, manager for telecom at The Scotts Companies, a lawn products and services company. Last year, the company started deploying BlackBerries, and in the last six months boosted the number from 300 to 1,000.

"On desktops, we [in IT] can remotely do anything on them," he says. "BlackBerries don't have that option. With 1,000 units out there, anytime we change [something] out, there's a lot of work." Deploying units quickly and smoothly is vital to minimize disruptions, Hiltscher says.

There was a bit more detail from the next speaker, Michael de la Cruz, senior vice president of mobility and analytics for SAP. He gave a demonstration of the native version of SAP's CRM application appearing on a BlackBerry, a recently announced innovation. New code lets SAP software tie into the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. He called up a variety of business intelligence dashboards showing charts and graphs of key business data, such as actual sales against targets, with pending deals also assessed.

SAP contact data is blended seamlessly with the BlackBerry calendar, e-mail and phonebooks, for setting up meetings, making calls and sending e-mails. Users can key in short notes on phone briefings and update the status of the customer's account on the back end.

De la Cruz predicted that three "enablers" would offer enriched application features in the future: presence via integrated GPS; Wi-Fi; and Bluetooth connectivity and multimedia.

In a later demonstration, a RIM software developer showed a BlackBerry-focused approach to the SAP data and functions. "You don't actually call up a [separate] SAP application," he said. He showed a customer appointment on a BlackBerry calendar entry, sending an e-mail, getting via GPS turn-by-turn directions to the customer's office, making a call to the customer, and entering a short note about what the call was about, logging this into the CRM database.

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