RIM Expands Its Horizons With 'Virtual' BlackBerry

The new app that runs on Windows Mobile 6.0 was announced shortly after a crippling outage that effectively shut down BlackBerry service across North America.
Aiming to further expand beyond BlackBerry's closed universe, Research In Motion said Monday that it will offer a "virtual" version of the BlackBerry push-e-mail service that runs on the Microsoft smartphone operating system. Available beginning in the fall, the new application will operate on a number of as-yet-unspecified devices running Windows Mobile 6.0.

The application doesn't require the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, the backbone of corporate mobile e-mail for hundreds of companies that have rolled out BlackBerry handheld devices over the last decade.

This latest move -- which comes a week after RIM suffered a crippling overnight outage that effectively shut down BlackBerry service across North America -- represents the latest acknowledgment by RIM that its dominant mobile e-mail model, which encompasses devices, software, and servers, is no longer sufficient in a world full of new smartphones from major handset manufacturers offering mobile e-mail.

"You have a responsibility of either supporting openness or you're not the standard platform," RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie told The Associated Press. "If you don't do this, you're really not giving the carriers and corporations what they expect."

Devices running on Windows Mobile now represent about 14% of the smartphone market, according to market research firm Canalys. The mobile operating system world is dominated by Symbian, with 67% of the market (most of that outside the United States), while RIM-based devices make up only 7%.

Last year RIM launched BlackBerry Connect, which runs on Symbian and Palm OS-based devices.

"This is an open-standards play that largely builds on what RIM has done before," says Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. "Specifically, BlackBerry Connect facilitated BlackBerry e-mail service on various other mobile platforms, and this extends this functionality beyond basic e-mail and into the full BlackBerry applications suite."

While some analysts termed this move a competitive strike against Microsoft, it also can be seen as a tacit admission that Windows Mobile is likely to continue to expand its presence on the smartphones of the future. RIM, which now derives almost three-quarters of its revenue from hardware sales, is focused on maintaining its subscriber base, regardless of the device those subscribers use.

"Limiting the service to one hardware platform -- namely, RIM-branded handhelds -- would significantly limit the scope by which RIM would be able to grow its market," Levy adds.

This is hardly the first move RIM has made to broaden its market beyond the executives and highly mobile professionals that have formed the vanguard of BlackBerry's 8 million subscribers. Last fall the Waterloo, Ontario-based company released the Pearl, a sleek, lower-priced version of the BlackBerry aimed at consumers. And last month the company said it would open the BlackBerry to third-party developers by adding APIs to the BlackBerry Java Development Environment, aiming to expand the range of applications available for the popular devices.

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