Research In Motion Ltd.'s third-party licensing program is about to take on a life of its own. The company's shifting business strategy may create more device choices for IT departments committed to BlackBerry Enterprise Server -- but the shift could mark the decline of the quintessential BlackBerry at the hands of third-party clones.
Last week, Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM announced a licensing deal that permits Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. to enable its smart phones and handheld devices for the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, the back-end software that enables handhelds to send and receive e-mail by integrating with messaging servers Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino.
For years, only RIM's own BlackBerry devices could connect with Enterprise Server, meaning RIM had both ends of the market cornered. But that changed in late 2002, when RIM signed its first third-party licensing deal, granting Nokia Corp. permission to produce devices that work with Enterprise Server.
RIM focused more attention on licensing last year by launching a formal program and subsequently signing up operating system players Microsoft, PalmSource Inc. and Symbian Ltd., as well as device makers Hewlett-Packard Co., Sony-Ericsson Mobile Communications AB and Taiwan's High Tech Computer Corp. To date, however, the only third-party devices compatible with Enterprise Server are Nokia's 6810 and 6820 model smart phones and HP's Compaq iPaq BlackBerry H1100 and W1000.
But according to Todd Kort, a principal analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., that's about to change. He said that a number of vendors are working on new, RIM-friendly devices based, many of which will be based on Texas Instruments' next-generation Wanda chip set, offering more connectivity options for corporate users.
"This year is the year you'll start to see more third-party RIM-enabled devices," Kort said. "The BlackBerry technology is going to proliferate well beyond the RIM devices."
Naturally, more device makers will mean more options for enterprises committed to BlackBerry Server. Mark Guibert, RIM's vice president of corporate marketing, said that the company's licensing deals will enable IT departments to offer users BlackBerry functionality on a wide range of devices while maintaining infrastructure consistency and ease of administration.
But Kort said that RIM's strategy is also intended to generate licensing revenue. Even though at least 50% of RIM's revenue stems from the sale of its own handhelds, that could change significantly over the course of the next year, he said -- if the company's licensing partners produce devices that enterprises find appealing and adopt, causing RIM's BlackBerry Server customers to buy more user licenses.
"I think it's encouraging that RIM is becoming more open to licensing its platform widely," Kort said. "I think it's feeling some heat from Good Technology," one of RIM's major competitors, which also operates a third-party licensing program.
In the end, said Kort, it's a win-win for companies using Enterprise Server, because they can either hold to the status quo by supporting only traditional BlackBerrys, or they can offer users more choices by supporting the new breed of devices when they become available later this year. Handling the back-end administration shouldn't be any more difficult, and users might be more inclined to use a mobile device that better suits their needs.
"The right approach is to keep the platform open," Guibert said. "That's what our customers and our carriers want, and at the end of the day if you address those two groups, the rest will follow."