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Will BlackBerry crumble?

BlackBerry's ease of use has made it the standard by which all other mobile e-mail products are judged. With competitors crowding in, can BlackBerry stay on top?

First published on

There's no doubting the compelling nature of mobile e-mail. No one likes returning to an office with screens full of unread messages in their inbox. Despite the increased working hours, it somehow feels we're more in control if messages can be read and dealt with during out-of-the-office mobile moments. Compared with many mobile applications, it's an easier sell internally to senior management and the financial controllers as they can personally see the benefit.

Small wonder then that the Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry unit bore so much early fruit. It's easy to use, and RIM clearly takes a businesslike, rather than consumer-oriented, approach to the no-nonsense industrial design. The solution is fully integrated end-to-end from server software to handheld device. True, the costs might have seemed a little high, and outside the U.S., this definitely narrowed sales to early adopters, some senior executives and those companies with broad existing user communities in the U.S.

Now BlackBerry is being squeezed. RIM has been dogged over the past year with legal issues, and now most other mobile e-mail solution providers have it in their sights. It's now explicitly targeted in competitors' press releases. Often a mark of respect for a market leader, this now seems more like the growing confidence of a challenger.

RIM has been adapting its approach and tackling the thorny issue of user choice versus total integration, by building deals to deploy its software on other devices. But is that the solution?

A key reason why BlackBerry was so interesting to many purchasers is the simple totality of the solution. When broken down into separate parts, is it just like any other mobile e-mail wannabe? If so, its deficiencies will be seized upon without mercy by its competitors. The mobile e-mail market has been seeing some consolidation, but this is seen as the key mobile application, and features such as ease of use and e-mail pushed silently to the user are becoming widespread.

But there's more to BlackBerry than just e-mail push, right? After all, it's being offered by many of the operators. Is this translating into sufficient sales for RIM and its channels? I doubt it.

The problem is this: RIM is falling prey to the issues that affect many first-to-market products. Its initial premium pricing for a unique solution now looks expensive in an increasingly competitive landscape. The initial simplicity of an integrated device and service now looks proprietary and restrictive. RIM's move to offer the software on other hardware platforms is a worthy and welcome move, but should have been made earlier. BlackBerrys are not the only fruit whose volumes would have benefited from open licensing. The growing use of mobile e-mail highlights other difficulties too. The mass use of e-mail as a universal lowest denominator workflow and document management system means messages more often have documents attached. These must be managed, compressed and viewed across the gap between mobile device and office. That gap must support the high volume security requirements of a growing mobile workforce, not just a limited number of executives for whom security policies can be 'adjusted'. Attachments and the impact on corporate firewalls are both weak aspects of the BlackBerry solution.

The competition to the BlackBerry still has challenges to overcome and much to thank RIM for too. The BlackBerry defined and led the product category for easy mobile e-mail. However, product categories have limited lifetimes and what's appearing now is a broader market category. First entrant products always seem surprised by this change, and often try to close the market criteria down. At least by looking to other platforms, RIM isn't falling into this trap, but has it made the move in time?

2004 promises to be an important year for mobile e-mail of all flavors.

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