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BlackBerry battles for mobility domination

BlackBerry has been the heavyweight enterprise mobility champion for a long time now, but there are several new contenders entering the ring looking to slug it out for the title.

Like a championship prize fight, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile are in their corners ready to battle for mobile supremacy. The bout, which will span several rounds, ultimately coming to an end in 2010, could determine which holds the strongest market position and which goes back to the changing room defeated.

Ding! Ding!

According to Sean Ryan, research analyst for mobile enterprise devices at IDC, the world of enterprise-class converged mobile devices is changing. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) has held the championship belt for a few years, but now there are contenders worthy of dethroning the reigning champ.

Overall, according to IDC, mobile device shipments are expected to reach 63 million units worldwide by 2010, a huge jump from 2005's 7.3 million.

"There's a lot of change right now," Ryan said. "The RIM technology is great. I don't want it to seem like RIM is going the way of the buffalo, but Microsoft leverages existing technologies, architectures and connections."

IDC said Microsoft's involvement with Motorola, Palm and others such as Nokia threatens to weaken RIM's dominance in the enterprise market.

For mobile users and managers, this influx of new devices presents an interesting challenge, Ryan said. BlackBerry users will be forced to re-evaluate their deployment, while companies looking for mobile solutions will have more options to choose from, which could create some confusion.

BlackBerry has taken its lumps before and come out a little bruised but not broken -- for example, the years-long patent litigation suit filed by NTP Inc. claiming that BlackBerry's mobile email infringed on patents held by NTP. The lawsuit brought on a potential BlackBerry shutdown but eventually ended with RIM paying a huge settlement.

And BlackBerry users are a loyal bunch who don't quickly abandon the technology. Just ask Jon Bartleson, assistant director of computing services at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. WPI didn't ditch BlackBerry, even with a potential lawsuit looming. Now, he said, WPI is with BlackBerry for the long haul.

"We were concerned because there was a lot of press," Bartleson said of the lawsuit and the uncertainty it created. "But we decided to stick with it. There was no problem with the technology. Switching would be a huge endeavor."

WPI has a few dozen BlackBerrys deployed and that number is growing monthly. Mostly, WPI users rely on BlackBerry for mobile email and calendaring functions. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) has been online at WPI since June 2004. Bartleson said ease of use and "worry-free management" are key.

"In a university environment, we have to be aware of most technologies that are out there," he said. "I don't see a lot of changeover among people who have been with BlackBerry from the beginning. Here, BlackBerry has a pretty loyal audience."

And that loyalty has made RIM the undisputed market leader, with more than 5.5 million subscribers worldwide and sales of around $2 billion in 2006. But the BlackBerry maker's eight-year title run has inspired several challengers. According to IDC, Nokia and Motorola are both in strong positions because of their leadership in the overall mobile phone market, which gives them influence as well as key positions within the value chains to step up against RIM. For example, the Motorola Q and the Nokia E61 are high-profile (or "iconic") devices intended to generate buzz and resonate with business users on both a functional and personal level.

Still, BlackBerry is no stranger to the rope-a-dope and has countered with its own prosumer device, the BlackBerry Pearl, which shows that BlackBerry is willing to reposition itself as the competition strengthens.

"[RIM] always told us we'll never put a camera on a phone," Ryan said, adding that the BlackBerry Pearl features not only a camera but a music player as well. Those defensive tactics show BlackBerry's ability to adapt.

"It's definitely upping the ante," he said of the new prosumer-focused smartphones. "It's certainly making a new set of challenges for [RIM]."

Ryan said Windows Mobile held a 10% market share in 2005, while BlackBerry trumped that with 46%. But the market shift, IDC suggests, will see Windows Mobile take the top spot by 2010, raking in 32.3% and leaving BlackBerry with a mere 14.9%.

Ryan said that one reason Windows Mobile will become a major contender is that it can extend Windows from the core to the device.

"Microsoft has the potential to grow -- a real strength for Windows Mobile operating system being the biggest growth engine," he said.

But not all are convinced. Jack Gold, principal and founder of J. Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research and analyst firm, said he doesn't quite see Microsoft unseating BlackBerry just yet.

Microsoft's user interface is not very intuitive, he said. "Although we continue to believe that the Windows Mobile platform will be the overwhelming choice for enterprise application deployments due to its affinity to Windows, it is still too burdensome for casual users who are primarily looking for a device to do email and be a good phone.

"The Moto Q has not been a great success, and the Palm-powered Treo outsells the Windows Mobile-based Treo by a significant amount," Gold continued.

But the operating system is not the only differentiator that Ryan sees challenging BlackBerry's position. He said both Motorola and Nokia are leveraging well-established software companies. Nokia has greatly expanded its product breadth and end-to-end solution with the acquisition of Intellisync, while Motorola has combined forces with Microsoft in offering Windows Mobile 5.0. Microsoft is the key partner that gives device vendors such as Motorola, HTC, Samsung and Palm the ability to attack the core BlackBerry user base. Microsoft is also ramping up IT policy support and is looking to exploit its dominant position in the IT systems of enterprises worldwide, as well as with end users familiar with the Windows OC and Microsoft applications.

On the software front, however, Nokia is still a long way from reaching BlackBerry fame, according to Gold.

"Nokia has a long way to go with upgrading and improving its Intellisync acquisition before it achieves the functionality or ease of use of the BlackBerry BES experience," he said. "And Microsoft will appeal to push users primarily in those enterprises with the most current version of Exchange, which offers direct push technology. But there are a fair number of companies, especially in SMB, that are not on the current version of Exchange, as well as a reasonably large number of Lotus Notes companies, which don't benefit from the Exchange direct push capability. That's why third parties like Good [Mobile Messaging] exist -- to work with a number of different devices from a number of different platforms."

Security could also keep BlackBerry at the top of the heap, Gold said.

"On the security front, while Microsoft and Intellisync are making some improvements, there is currently no solution as secure end-to-end as the BlackBerry/BlackBerry Enterprise Server," he said. "This is particularly important for government agencies and large financial institutions."

Still, Gold adds that regardless of RIM's dominance, BlackBerry does face some stiff competition, especially in parts of Europe and the Far East where it is less established than in North America. And Gold said that Nokia devices like the E61 and E62 are great for enterprise users.

"Indeed, I believe that if Nokia can get their act together on the enterprise front and fix some of the issues of their software, [Intellisync] could be a formidable competitor to BlackBerry," he said. "But having a good device is not enough. Most companies want an entire solution, which is why the back-end server component is important."

However, adding the Pearl to the lineup, along with more devices to come, has the potential to give BlackBerry devices more appeal to both enterprises and the masses, which is something that RIM has lacked in the past, prompting some users to opt against BlackBerry.

According to Ryan, though, the Pearl may be too little, too late to save RIM and solidify its leadership.

"Several BlackBerry clones have previously attempted to challenge RIM's reign in the enterprise market, but this is a more formidable strike," Ryan said. "The timing is right for a more powerful attack against RIM's BlackBerry as competitive forces converge. Nokia is offering an end-to-end solution of its own, while Motorola and Palm, among others, are leveraging Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0 and Microsoft Exchange."

In other words, Ryan said: "It looks like [the mobile device market competition] is really heating up."

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