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BlackBerry Faces Challenges Beyond The NTP Lawsuit

Shaking NTP off its back is just half the battle. Now RIM is trying to stay ahead of a horde of hungry and fierce competitors with new "prosumer" features such as voice over IP and instant messaging.
Whole Package
RIM has drawn customers by having the whole package: devices, a wireless push E-mail service, and support for business applications, bundled together with a server that sits behind the company firewall. That makes it much easier than having to cobble together a mobile-device infrastructure from numerous vendors.

Meanwhile, RIM has improved integration with other operating systems and devices through its BlackBerry Connect program, helping to alleviate some of those proprietary platform concerns.

But wireless E-mail providers such as Visto and Good Technology are trying to convince companies they'd be better off with a service not tied to specific hardware and software. Law firm Keesal, Young & Logan came away convinced. "We abandoned BlackBerry for Good Technology and the ability to have the same user interface and back-office setup regardless of device or carrier," says Justin Hectus, the firm's director of information. The firm's employees use at least five different mobile devices and three wireless carriers.


BlackBerry In A Nutshell
RIM's PDA is the most popular, but it faces tempting alternatives and a competitive landscape of tricked-out mobile devices.

Strengths
>> Leads in market share
>> Best E-mail/device combo offering

Weaknesses
>> Proprietary hardware and software
>> Lingering clouds from NTP lawsuit

Opportunities
>> More 'prosumer' features
>> Growing support for other operating systems and devices

Threats
>> Other wireless E-mail options
>> Consumer-oriented smart phones and PDAs

Even with all these competitors beating on RIM's door, Balsillie insists the BlackBerry will keep its loyal following and win new converts. "We're investing heavily in innovation," he says.

RIM had set aside $450 million for an NTP settlement, leaving it $163 million short of the final deal. Still, RIM has about $1.8 billion in cash and equivalents, leaving plenty for developing new features and functions, Balsillie says.

Under Balsillie's prosumer approach, RIM now lets BlackBerry users communicate with work colleagues through instant-messaging applications, including Microsoft Windows Messenger and Lotus Sametime, made possible through upgrades in its BlackBerry Server version 4.1 released last week. RIM last week made Google Talk IM available as a free download for users with Google Gmail accounts, and it has supported America Online and Yahoo IM since last year.

RIM also plans to add E-commerce features on BlackBerry devices that will make it easy for users to buy and sell goods on popular Web sites like Amazon.com and eBay--but Balsillie wouldn't provide further details about those features. The features will require BlackBerrys to run on faster wireless networks, something RIM is working with hundreds of carriers around the world to achieve, he says. The latest BlackBerry 7130e is available on Verizon Wireless' EV-DO third-generation cellular network.

Many of the newer features RIM offers aren't available on Windows Mobile 5.0, but that will soon change. Microsoft says within the next few months it will release software that extends to mobile devices the IM, VoIP, and presence-awareness applications in its Microsoft Office Live Communications Server designed for business desktop users.

RIM has long been a favorite among businesspeople. The road may seem easier with NTP out of the way, but its next challenge is to stay ahead of a horde of fierce and hungry competitors that aren't far behind.