BlackBerry show fans high hopes

BlackBerry users have been speculating for weeks about RIM's possible moves at the Wireless Enterprise Symposium
  • John Cox (Network World)
  • 13 May, 2008 12:16

This week's annual conference for BlackBerry users comes at a critical time for the device's creator, Research in Motion.

RIM faces a huge opportunity as 3G networks spread, providing workable access to applications and data for traditional enterprise users and new consumer users. But it also faces growing competition from Microsoft to win allegiance to a mobile platform, and from new entrant Apple, whose iPhone has dramatically highlighted what a mobile experience can actually accomplish.

Via blogs, BlackBerry users have been speculating for weeks about RIM's possible moves at the Wireless Enterprise Symposium in the US. Many are chomping at the bit, eager to get their hands on even a beta version of BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0 (code-named Argon), announced at last year's conference and notable mainly for its absence since, and on several new smartphones, including the still-unannounced BlackBerry 9000, and a possible flip phone (or clamshell) model.

There hasn't been a formal beta test announced for BES 5.0. And previous speculation anticipated a mid-2008 release. Currently, users and analysts now are expecting a release late in 2008. At least four sessions at the conference are devoted to this major new version.

Among the new features:

  • A new, extensible, Web-based management interface, dubbed "BlackBerry Administration Services".
  • "Unified application management" to give BES administrators the ability to oversee Java, BlackBerry MDS Studio, and browser applications, a vital element in turning BES into a mobile application deployment and management platform.
  • Expanded suite of APIs.
  • Integration with Microsoft Active directory, part of RIM's effort to make BES a platform for emerging trends such as unified communications.
  • Automated failover of a primary BES 5.0 server to a standby (and a manual failover option that can be used for server maintenance and software updates).

New details of the BlackBerry 9000 started leaking earlier this month, and it's widely expected to be formally unveiled this week. Three apparently bona fide 9000 smartphones were offered on eBay, where Kevin Michaluk bought one (for US$828), and practically took it apart for a highly-detailed, three-part review at the Crackberry Web site.

The 9000 will be similar in size and shape to the BlackBerry Curve C221, which like the Pearl, has a more consumer-oriented design, 1GB onboard storage, 128MB flash memory for applications, and is expected to run Version 4.6 of the BlackBerry operating system. It will apparently be a dual-mode phone, with 802.11abg Wi-Fi and multiple cellular interfaces including High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) for 3G networks. The 9000 apparently will have a full HTML browser, and that's likely to get close attention, because BlackBerry smartphones have been repeatedly criticized for their poor browsing experience compared with rivals.

One BlackBerry fan site, The Boy Genius Report, posted earlier this month photos and specifications of what appears to be a BlackBerry flip phone called KickStart. The specs outline a quad-band phone, with the 4.6 operating system, 16-bit color LCDs, 802.11bg radio, a 2 megapixel camera, and a SureType keyboard.

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It's vital for RIM to keep advancing both its platform and its devices, given the steadily growing competition from Microsoft with its Windows Mobile operating system, and the spectacular success of the Apple iPhone.

Microsoft, too, is ramping up its efforts to attract consumers to its mobile offerings, by hiring a new vice president of marketing tasked to do just that for its mobility business and by distributing a software application, from its Zumobi spin-off, which is designed to make it easier for Windows Mobile users to browse the Web. On the enterprise side, Microsoft has just released System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008, designed to make Microsoft handhelds as fully manageable as its desktop and laptop PCs.

Apple is expected to unveil the 3G version of its wildly popular iPhone in June, just weeks after the RIM conference. While still focusing on consumers, the release of a software development kit and new features due shortly in Version 2.0 of the iPhone's operating system are intended to make it easy to integrate and secure the iPhone on corporate networks.

RIM for years has been talking about the BlackBerry being "more than e-mail" but turning that theme into more than a set of PowerPoint slides has been a slow process. The company has been trumpeting a just-announced deal with software giant SAP, and at least two sessions at the conference will focus on this. The two companies are jointly developing a native BlackBerry version of SAP's enterprise CRM software, tying it into the smartphone's e-mail, address book, and calendar programs and with backend customer data stores. The companies are expected to do the same with SAP's ERP and supply chain applications.

As 3G networks expand in North America, deploying such applications and connecting them over high-bandwidth cellular data networks to corporate data stores becomes more feasible and affordable.

Despite the challenges, RIM is clearly doing something right.

The conference comes just before the close of RIM's first fiscal 2009 quarter, which despite the stumbling economy in the United States, is expected to be even better than the record-setting end-of-year results last March. Then, RIM reported yearly revenue of US$6 billion, almost exactly double the 2007 number, and profits of US$412.5 million, a 105 per cent increase over the previous year (72 cents per share compared with 33 cents last year). In that report, RIM said it expects the first quarter of fiscal 2009 revenues to be in the US$2.23 to US$2.3 billion range, and profits in the 82 to 86 cents per share range.

Just as importantly, during the fourth quarter, RIM added nearly 2.2 million net new BlackBerry subscriber accounts, with 50 per cent of these from non-enterprise customers, according to RIM co-CEO James Balsillie. By the end of fiscal 2008, 38 per cent of the total account base of just more than 14 million were from outside the traditional enterprise category.