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Mathias On Mobility: RIM's BlackBerry Far From Doomed

Many financial analysts have been offering commentary on Research In Motion (RIM) and its flagship product, the BlackBerry line of handsets and associated services. More than one has suggested that RIM is in deep trouble, even predicting that RIM could be the next zero-dollar stock, or the next Palm, which was recently acquired by HP.

That's poppycock. Rubbish. Balderdash. RIM and the BlackBerry are going to do just fine, at least for the next few years, but it is clear that there many challenges.

The most obvious challenge is the rise of the iPhone and Android-based devices. The latter has become so similar to the iPhone that analysts like me can lump them all into a single category: cool smartphones. These handsets have buzz. They have great marketing and mindshare. They define contemporary, especially with respect to user interface and applications. But keep in mind that the BlackBerry once held that very same role.

Don't forget that "BlackBerry" was a verb before "Google." BlackBerry was established, and remains for many, the corporate standard for handsets. But RIM's key problem, has been their inability to stay cool. BlackBerry handsets look downright clunky -- both the hardware and software -- in comparison to today's coolness leaders. Attempts to generate modern appeal -- most notably the Storm and the Torch -- have flopped. But BlackBerrys do indeed work, and the over-the-air encryption and other functionality of BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) continue to satisfy IT managers everywhere, at least for now.

The looming threat to the BlackBerry, though, is the consumerization of handsets and the crossover between enterprise and consumer products. Users want to carry only one device, and that's going to be a personal, not corporate, handset. Thus, a key trend is enterprises allowing employees to use their own handsets on corporate networks, a practice known as personal liability.

Properly implemented, personal liability can IT lower costs, eliminate the need to carry more than one handset, and, with proper mobile device management, security and related issues are minimized. And one can get mobile device management systems and services from perhaps 50 different vendors today.

RIM is attempting to address the coolness and software issues at least in part by migrating to the QNX OS, which runs on their PlayBook tablet. While the idea of a business-focused tablet has appeal, a proprietary OS just adds cost without adding differentiation -- ask Palm whether WebOS, a fine piece of technology, really, helped them at all. Ditto, by the way, for Windows Phone 7.

So why be optimistic about RIM's future? Because they have an enormous installed base, and migrating away from a key platform takes a very long time, especially for large corporate users. This gives RIM a good deal of room to get their technology and marketing acts together. Farpoint Group still projects RIM will hold the number three slot in handset platforms a few years out, right behind Linux (likely Android, but that's by no means a given yet) and Apple's iOS.

Apple remains the greatest marketing company on the planet. That can't be lost on RIM by now they; like most other handset vendors, they dismissed the sea change that was the original iPhone, but lessons have been learned since then. So don't count RIM out. The trends are clear, but the evolution will be slow, giving RIM the time it needs to stay in the top three.


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Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.