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Blackberry gets bold

How Research In Motion plans to change the image of its devices.

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: October 31, 2010

Karishma Sahi, a 28-year-old production executive at an ad film-making firm in Mumbai, swears by her BlackBerry Curve. But she does not have her corporate e-mail on the device - something that millions of managers all over the world are slave to. For that matter she does not even have a corporate e-mail address that she uses. Instead, she loves the BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, a secure chat service that can be accessed by all BlackBerry users. She is, as Vodafone put it in its popular new television commercial, one of the new-generation "BlackBerry Boys".

As Canadian firm, Research In Motion, or RIM, the maker of BlackBerry devices, faces off with the Indian government (see On or Off?) on a tussle regarding national security and access, it has a more fundamental challenge in the marketplace posed by other devices like Apple's iPhone and Google's Android operating system. One way to do that is to reach out to a class of consumers other than those who populate boardrooms. In other words, customers like Sahi.

RIM can also attract new customers with new products. At the RIM Developer Conference, DevCon 2010, in San Francisco recently, when Mike Lazaridis, Co-CEO, strode onto the stage, he might have lacked the gravitas and the black turtleneck of a Steve Jobs, Apple's iconic CEO. But the cheers and whistles from the crowd at the Moscone Center were no less vigorous.

And when he took out the new BlackBerry PlayBook, the cheers reached a deafening crescendo. This tablet, which Lazaridis touted as "an enterprise-ready" device with the ability to run several applications concurrently (multitasking), is being positioned by RIM as the "anti" iPad, the tablet produced by Apple.

The PlayBook promises to allow users to sync data seamlessly with a BlackBerry handset and also run all the enterprise software and collaboration tools that are on a BlackBerry. Lazaridis did not hesitate to state over and over again that the endeavour was to "make it appeal to Chief Technology Officers". This is despite the fact that the PlayBook will use a fundamentally different operating system, made by a company called QNX Software Systems, which RIM acquired last year.

However, QNX Software, which also powers the Multimedia Interface in Audi and the iDrive system in BMW vehicles, is optimistic that its software will give BlackBerry the edge over the iPad with CEO Dan Dodge mentioning that the PlayBook will integrate the work and home environments. "You will be able to have a work application running on the PlayBook while playing a full highdefinition movie on the device, which could be plugged into a display," says Dodge.

While the new device, undoubtedly, got most of the attention, its hardware specifications and enterprise capabilities will probably mean that by the time it launches in earlyto-middle 2011, it will be an extremely expensive device. And it still does not answer the question: With what does RIM go after younger users? According to David Yach, CTO of Software at RIM, the solution lies in getting developers to make more applications (apps) for BlackBerry users as well as getting those apps to interact with users more effectively.

BlackBerry may be a market leader in smartphones in several countries but, according to research firm IDC, it falls far behind when it comes to applications. It has its own apps store called BlackBerry App World, which has around 10,000 applications. Compare that to Apple's iTunes App Store, which has over 225,000 applications for both iPhones and iPads; and the Android Marketplace, which is nearing 100,000 applications.

The first change, which RIM believes will lead to development of more applications, is something called the "WebWorks" development platform. Yach believes that this simple development tool should allow people with just an understanding of HTML (the simple computer language the Internet is coded in) to make applications for BlackBerry devices.

"We have even waived the application fee for developers as well as the submission fee for a short time," adds Yach. In addition, RIM (like Nokia's Ovi platform) is also talking about operator billing for apps bought through App World. This, according to Lazaridis, should help in countries such as India, Indonesia and in Latin America where payment systems are not well developed as yet.

The other major change is BlackBerry opening up the BBM platform to developers. "Doing this will allow developers access to a powerful platform that has over 28 million users worldwide and is adding one million new users every month," says Yach. The concept is simple: If a user opens an application that has access to BBM and his or her friends on the BBM list also have that application, they could do an in-app chat.

So, for example, if two or more users are playing a game such as poker on their BlackBerry devices, they can now possibly chat with each other from inside the game itself. "This will add a whole new level of interaction to our applications," says Yach, who, in fact, describes these applications as "Super Apps".

Critics argue that RIM had no choice but to open up its app store to more developers, as the latter find themselves in the enviable position of being chased by device manufacturers (other than Apple). The enticements offered by RIM to developers are also being matched by Nokia's Symbian as well as Microsoft for its soon-to-be-launched Windows Phone 7 platform.

RIM, however, is in a very strong position currently, selling over 10 million devices worldwide in the last quarter as well as crossing the million user mark in India. Yet, IDC predicts that Google's Android will overtake BlackBerry OS as a smartphone platform in device sales globally this year. Piper Jaffray, a telecom consultancy, argues in a recent report that RIM should even consider moving over to Google's Android operating system.

"Over time, we do not see the benefit of RIM and Nokia continuing to push proprietary software that cannot compete with the market and eventually expect one or both to capitulate and move to utilising third party software," writes Jaffray. BlackBerry might want to move on beyond the suits, but at least the suits were, and are, loyal. The problem with the new generation of "BlackBerry Boys" is that like everyone else in their generation, they switch loyalties surprisingly quickly.

If BlackBerry is to contest the prophesies of doom, it should hope that the "BlackBerry Boys" do not become 'Android Dudes' or 'iPhone Guys'.

- Travel to BlackBerry DevCon was sponsored by RIM

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