To many of its 320,000 users, the BlackBerry—a sleek, pocket-sized device that gives you access to your e-mail while on the move—is known as “Crackberry”, so addictive is the ability to read and write messages while in a taxi, on a train, or during a meeting. Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian firm behind the BlackBerry, has championed a new product category: neither a handheld computer with a wireless connection grafted on, nor an e-mail system shoe-horned into a mobile phone, but a device that combines an always-on wireless connection with a useable screen and keyboard, yet doesn’t ruin the cut of your jacket. Is this the shape of things to come?
At the moment, the market is a niche one. RIM sells the BlackBerry handhelds, dozens at a time, to large companies as part of a package. A special box sits next to the corporate e-mail server, and pipes messages out to BlackBerry devices. It also handles replies sent from those devices, so that messages sent from a BlackBerry appear in the “out tray” on the sender’s PC. RIM provides the devices, arranges airtime with the wireless operator, and handles network plumbing. So far, it has had most success in specific vertical markets, such as financial services, where the ability to respond quickly to events is worth paying for. For consumers, the BlackBerry’s main benefit—integration with a corporate e-mail system—does not apply.
RIM touts astronomical figures for return-on-investment. But the real advantage, says Joe Manget of Boston Consulting, is that access to e-mail while travelling, and during evenings and weekends, means that less time is spent managing e-mail in the office; that time can then be used more productively. In effect, the BlackBerry tempts users to work during leisure time. For many users the trade-off is worthwhile. They would rather deal with a handful of messages every so often than face a mountain of e-mail when they arrive at their desks.
Having led the way, RIM no longer has the market to itself. Mobile operators are offering increasingly sophisticated telephone-based e-mail services, some of which integrate with corporate e-mail, if somewhat crudely. On May 7th a start-up called Good Technology, based in Sunnyvale, California, announced its own service, which manages to out-BlackBerry the BlackBerry in some respects. This rival service, called GoodLink, offers superior mail-management and synchronisation features, and runs both on BlackBerry devices and Good’s own handheld, which is arguably an improvement on the BlackBerry. Good’s chief executive, Danny Shader, says his firm has already coaxed some BlackBerry users to defect. RIM insists that Good is just a copycat company.
The market for all this clever technology is still tiny, however. A mere 32,000 BlackBerry devices were sold in the first three months of this year, compared with 3.25m handheld computers and around 100m mobile phones. Rather than looking to the consumer market for growth, both RIM and Good see the greatest opportunity in providing access to corporate databases, inventory-management systems and customer information to mobile workers. Mr Shader puts the potential size of the market at 15m users.
That means that the BlackBerry and its like will remain niche products for executives and mobile workers. Even so, its influence is being widely felt. The BlackBerry makes previous handheld computers look clunky and outdated. It shows that it is possible to fit a proper alphanumeric keyboard into a small device. Most important of all, it shows that a useful, simple and seamless service is powerfully addictive—a lesson that the troubled mobile-telecoms industry cannot afford to ignore.