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BlackBerry Storm: A potential iPhone killer in the enterprise

With the BlackBerry Storm, RIM is offering enterprises an alternative to the iPhone. It features the touch-screen technology favored by consumers, but it has the highly praised security and reliable wireless email capabilities of the BlackBerry platform.

Although Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) refuses to say so explicitly, the company has delivered to enterprises a viable alternative to the iPhone with the new BlackBerry Storm.

Ken Dulaney, vice president and distinguished analyst for Gartner Inc., said the first touch-screen BlackBerry isn't quite up to par with the iPhone from a consumer perspective, but CIOs who have been feeling pressure from users to support the iPhone now have a comparable device that will meet their security requirements.

"Overall, the design of the user interface of the iPhone is much better, but the BlackBerry Storm is good," he said. "The [Storm] is a little bit thicker and wider than the iPhone, about on par with the typical BlackBerry. It has extremely good potential in the enterprise space."

The Storm has some innovative design elements, such as a capacitive touch-screen, which improves touch-screen accuracy and gives users a more tactile feel for navigating in the device.

Dulaney said the Storm's browser is still inferior to the Safari browser on the iPhone, which is one of the most important features on a touch-screen device. But he said that BlackBerry has greatly improved its own browser.

He calls the Storm RIM's most important product launch to date. He said it has the potential to help RIM regain some of the market momentum it has lost since Apple launched the iPhone.

In general, RIM declines to speak about the devices of its competitors when talking about its strategy for the BlackBerry. When we arranged to interview a RIM executive about the Storm, the company agreed to speak to us on the understanding that the company representative could not speak about competitors' devices. Therefore, we were unable to ask RIM whether the Storm is meant as an iPhone killer, but there's no doubt in most people's minds that this is the company's strategy.

David Smith, senior director of product management for RIM, said his company built the Storm in response to interest from Verizon and Vodaphone in having a touch-screen smartphone. RIM had built the BlackBerry 8830 exclusively for those companies as one of the first single-chip, dual-mode CDMA and GSM handsets a few years before.

"Vodaphone and Verizon came to us and said [they] would like to do something even more different," Smith said. "Something that has a large screen on it, ideally a touch-screen."

Smith said RIM has been looking at touch-screens for a long time -- since the early 1990s. RIM had seen companies like Palm and Casio do early work with touch-screen PDAs, he said, but didn't think the technology was ready yet.

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"The challenge with touch-screens is they combine and mix up navigation and confirmation," Smith said. "As soon as you lift your finger, that's an action. And you're kind of committed once you start touching the screen."

Smith said that is why RIM has added a capacitive touch-screen, a mechanical subsystem that "clicks" when the user presses down on it. This allow the user to separate navigation from confirmation. RIM believes this to be a big differentiator.

Dulaney said the touch-screen of the Storm makes it a serious alternative to the iPhone.

"It takes some of the pressure off IT to support the iPhone," he said. "They've permitted [it] to come in [to companies] in some instances, and we're fine with that as long as a company's security policies are minimal. In the case where security requirements are higher, they've kept [the iPhone] out."

The security and email capabilities of the Storm are comparable to other BlackBerry devices, making it an extremely appealing alternative.

Mike Jude, senior analyst for Nemertes Research, said the Storm is the first touch-screen smartphone built to enterprise standards. Nemertes' research has found that nearly 23% of enterprises support the BlackBerry. Clearly, the Storm is poised to satisfy a growing market demand.

"I would think that [IT departments] want to offer choice, and their employees will ask for choice, and that's what we are trying to meet," Smith said. "I know with many of the enterprise customers we've met with, whether with the Storm or with the Pearl flip, they're seeing opportunities to put BlackBerrys into the hands of more employees.

Dulaney says that many enterprises may want to stay with other BlackBerry devices, however, depending on what their user requirements are. Despite the excitement among consumers about touch-screens and the big browsers they offer, enterprise users are more split on the form factor. He said many mobile workers value a Qwerty keyboard's accuracy for writing emails. Dulaney, who tested a Storm for several days, said the tactile feel of the device's touch-screen makes for an improved typing experience over the iPhone, but it still doesn't match up with a Qwerty keypad.

He said organizations that use browser-based business applications will find the improved browsing experience of the Storm appealing as well, as long as users don't mind being unable to use the applications when not connected to a network, such as on a cross-continental flight.

"It's about the way you use it," Dulaney said. "The browser and the large screen on a touch-screen is probably the most important thing [for the Storm]," he said. "If you do email and don't care about the browser, then go with a Qwerty design. But if you go to a touch-screen, be ready to sacrifice the keyboard. Go with the Pearl if you've made a conscious decision that the design, size, weight, and telephony are important."

Smith conceded that the touch-screen certainly isn't for everyone.

"We know there are people who will want to continue to buy products with conventional keypads," he said. "It's all about choice."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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