BlackBerry push API goes after consumers

Developers can now use it to build applications that send e-mail and other content in the background

Research In Motion is injecting the power of its popular BlackBerry push technology into the consumer arena by letting third-party developers write applications that tap into it.

The BlackBerry swept the enterprise mobile market largely on the strength of push, which delivers e-mail messages and other content to the handset in the background as soon they arrive and can notify the user immediately. On Monday, RIM gave developers of consumer software a push API (application programming interface) for creating applications that could include Web-based e-mail and other tools.

RIM's move may hook many more mainstream consumers into mobile e-mail, according to Michael Gartenberg, vice president of strategy and research at Interpret.

"Push can be pretty revolutionary when it comes to e-mail," Gartenberg said. "It changes your whole experience." Push eliminates the hassles of moving to a good coverage area, opening an application to check for new messages and then waiting for them to get to the device, he said.

The company announced last October that it would expose its push APIs gradually over several quarters because of concerns about security. On Monday, RIM said developers who belong to the BlackBerry Alliance Program could use the API to build push capability into Java-based consumer applications. Java is the main platform used for BlackBerry applications.

Handmark, which offers the Pocket Express news and information service and other mobile services, expects the API to help it boost the use of its software. Most importantly, it will let Handmark show an update symbol with the application's icon on the main screen of the BlackBerry, said Ted Wugofski, the CTO and general manager for Pocket Express at Handmark. When a news story, stock price or sports score that interests a user shows up, the update symbol will appear.

"Removing barriers to using the application is extremely important," Wugofski said. With the proliferation of consumer smartphone applications, this issue is likely to grow. According to a study by Pinch Media earlier this year concerning the Apple iPhone's App Store, only 1 percent of users who buy a particular application become long-term users of it. Applications on the iPhone can't display an update alert until the user taps on them.

The new push capability could give RIM a much-needed weapon in its arsenal against rivals including the iPhone, Windows Mobile devices and the upcoming Palm Pre, Jupiter's Gartenberg said.

"There is a real battle heating up," Gartenberg said. RIM, Apple, Microsoft, Palm, Nokia and others are fighting over a consumer smartphone market that is becoming mainstream, he said. Consumers are finding reasons to buy all-in-one mobile devices despite the weak economy.

"These kinds of devices are rapidly moving from the 'nice to have' to the 'need to have,'" Gartenberg said.

The reason it's so important to win over developers is that the race among platforms can't remain so open indefinitely, he said. The market will probably be fragmented for the next 18 months or so, but eventually, developers will have to make a bet on one platform, if only to pick which platform they'll write for first, he said.

In this fight, RIM gained on Apple in the first quarter, with its BlackBerry Curve overtaking the iPhone as the top-selling smartphone in the U.S., according to a survey released by NPD Group on Monday. A Verizon Wireless promotion that gave customers two Curves for the price of one probably helped RIM. In the same period, the smartphone market grew to 23 percent of all phones sold, up from 17 percent a year earlier, NPD said.

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Stephen Lawson

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