For a guy whose legendary mobile messenging network could be forced to shutdown due to a patent battle with NTP, Research in Motion (maker of the BlackBerry) president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis (pictured left) seemed incredibly undistracted in his discussion of the company's more recent innovations as I interviewed him by phone yesterday morning. Sure, he's legally embargoed from discussing the case as long as it remains unresolved. But that didn't stop me from beating around the bush in terms of what the company might do next, nor did it stop him from staying on-message regarding why he thinks the company's newest BlackBerry -- the 8700 series -- raises the bar in a way that should convince exisitng BlackBerry users to keep the faith while convincing potential converts that RIM will continue to drive the agenda for mobile commumications solutions for business users.
Meanwhile, in a set of circumstances that could be emblematic of a US patent system gone seriously awry (I'm still not sure if I've got that right), not only are the company's legal troubles getting worse, top IT research outfit Gartner has issued a recommendation to halt all BlackBerry deployments until the legal air is cleared. All this when the US Patent and Trademark Office has already leaned in favor of a ruling that would completely exhonerate RIM of any wrongdoing. It's enough to lose sleep over. Yet, how Lazaridis can keep from exploding during interviews, much less stay on-message about the new devices the company is coming out with that may not have a network to run on in the US, I don't know. But, there he was, on the phone with me today, having a conversation as though it was business as usual.
And, from an innovation point of view, things might be "business as usual." I used quotes because there's a bit of double entendre to my use of the cliche. Dating back to the very first BlackBerries, RIM has been known as a beacon of common sense and innovation when it comes to designing a mobile messaging device. With its Grafitti handwriting recognition system and ability to do four things, but do them really well, the PalmOS (may it Rest in Peace) along with the first Palm Pilots may have defined conventional wisdom for what a PDA should have been back in the 90's when it first came out. But it took RIM to figure out what to do once you strap an antenna to the darn thing. RIM also rightfully dispensed with the idea of stylus-based computing (although first challenged by many, the use of thumbboards in the industrial designs of most of today's PDAs, smartphones, etc. pretty much vindicates RIM).
Since the days of the first BlackBerry, there's really hasn't been any looking back. The company has continued to innovate -- being one of the first to do things like move to a pure Java platform (a move that I still think could have saved PalmSource had it done so early enough) for such a complex (under the hood) mobile device, marrying messaging to cell phone capability while preserving an astonishing amount of battery power (for an always-on device with a color display), and more recently, come up with the SureType technology that allowed the company to pack all that a BlackBerry phone was into the candy bar design of the its 7100 series.
When the company came up with 7100's narrower design that mimicked the candy bar form factor of other cell phones already on the market, it had no choice but to shed the one-letter per button QWERTY thumbboard in favor of one that assigned two letters to some keys. Although I and some other people I know prefer the one-to-one design, the design choice threw a curve ball at type-ahead word prediction -- one that SureType does a good job with; way better than the one the T9 technology found on many cell phones does.
The second entendre of "business as usual" is RIM's target market.
In a previous blog entry, the basis of my argument that RIM could be losing its edge was how smartphone offerings from other companies had not only closed the gap on some of the features that once set Blackberries apart, but also how their versatility in other areas -- for example their memory expansion and multimedia capabilties (built-in camera, photos, audio, video, etc.) -- could tap the needs of users looking to mix business and pleasure.
For some like me, the price -- signficantly less battery life -- is worth exchanging for library of family pictures, music, podcasts, short movies of my kids, and the ability to snap photos even if they are low resolution. All of this plus some of a BlackBerry phone's standard features -- a thumbboard and wireless email -- come with my Windows Mobile 2003-based Verizon Wireless-provisioned Audiovox XV6600. One other thing the XV6600 does with its Bluetooth radio that BlackBerries can't do with their Bluetooth radios: it can behave as 3G modem by wirelessly connecting (via Bluetooth) my notebook computer to Verizon Wireless' high speed EVDO network (making it possible to do almost everything my notebook can nornally do on a WiFi network). BlackBerries can serve as 3G modems, but not through their Bluetooth radios. Instead, a USB cable is required.
In our phone call, Lazaridis acknowledged the existence of other devices on the market that do things the Blackberries do not. But in the same breath, Lazaridis is unapologetic for what he says is a deliberate design decision. Lazaridis argues that his company has remained focused on the needs of its customers who are primarily from the business, government, and military sectors. Those customers, says Lazaridis, are very sensitive to security and still see Bluetooth-based networking (used to wirelessly turn a handset into a 3G modem) as a potential vulnerability. Lazaridis says RIM's customers are still concerned about previously reported vulnerabilties such as bluesnarfing. For this reason, not only does the company not offer the networking profile of Bluetooth on its devices, it gives enterprise IT departments the management capability to disable the Bluetooth radios altogether (thereby disabling the BlackBerries' built-in support of Bluetooth-based wireless headsets).
For evidence of innovation, Lazaridis points to the new BlackBerry 8700 (I have just started testing one of these) saying that the device is a breakthrough on numerous fronts. The 8700's (pictured right) biggest achievement says Lazaridis is that its both a quad-band EDGE (can access the various radio frequencies over which 3G-rated EDGE wireless broadband networks operate) and Bluetooth device that's uncompromising in battery life for an always-on device (in true BlackBerry fashion) and that the guts are based on only 7 integrated circuits. Lazaridis claims the 8700, which harkens back to the original one-letter-to-one button thumbboard design, represents a step forward in display technology and snappy user interface performance (two claims that I can't substiate just yet). Citing the company's move to the 312 Mhz flavor of Intel's
PXA270 PXA901 XScale processor, Lazaridis says the platform within the 8700 is not only a new generation platform for future BlackBerries but also sets the stage for BlackBerries to include some of the performance hungry multimedia features that I think are lacking. In saying that, Lazaridis cautioned that he was't making any announcements. But he was clear that the new platform has the horsepower necessary to make those improvements. One other characteristic of the 8700 that some will find restricting: it doesn't support EVDO. The net effect is that for people who get the best coverage in areas they frequent from EVDO providers like Sprint and Verizon Wireless, the 8700 is currently not a option.
Another long term shortcoming to BlackBerries is their inability to natively certain types of e-mail attachments without first submitting those attachments to an online conversion service. For example, if a Word document is attached to an e-mail, a BlackBerry can't very easily detach and open it. Same goes for other Office documents. Lazaridis told me this problem will soon be solved but offered no further details. If that's the case, then it would catch BlackBerries up to Windows Mobile-based devices which can not only open such files, but edit them as well (however, the functionality is very barebones when it comes all the formatting that the PC version of the applications can do). I asked Lazaridis why RIM hasn't jumped on the OpenDocument Format bandwagon yet. BlackBerries seem like the perfect sort of device that can benefit from the interoperability of such an open standard. He said the company is interesting in learning more about the opportunities that OpenDocument creates.
One other point that Lazaridis said is important from a competitive advantage point of view: the ISO 900x certification that RIM has gotten for almost everything it does. Not only is such certification important for doing business in Europe, Lazaridis claims that RIM can get new technology to market faster than its competitors because of the way RIM's ISO 9000 certification means he can deliver pre-certified products to the various wireless carriers that sell BlackBerries. The challenge in bringing new handsets to market, as many smartphone manufacturers have learned, is that the wireless carriers must go through extensive testing before the handsets can be approved for usage on their networks. Whereas a vendor could have a product ready for rollout in the Winter, it may not be until the following Fall -- when some of the technology in the handset is practically obsolete -- that the product actually gets rolled out. This is one reason that products like Hewlett Packard's hw6500 smartphone that are just now coming out are stuck having to use an older version of Microsoft's smartphone operating system. Having RIM's test center ISO 9000 certified doesn't mean the carriers get to bypass all of their testing admits Lazaridis. But the test period can be significantly shorter he says, making it possible to get products to market before the technology in them starts to look obsolete.
I do see RIM in a bit of new light now that I've heard Lazaridis out and I'm horrified by the apparently broken legal and patent systems that are weighing on RIM like a boat anchor. I may even come to like the 8700 for some of the features that Lazaridis claims to be groundbreaking. But, right now, the device I'm most looking forward to is the Motorola Q. It'll be one of the first real Windows Mobile 5.0-based contenders to challenge the BlackBerry and it does a lot of the aforementioned things that the BlackBerry does not. For me, even if it chews through batteries, that sort of functionality is what will make all the difference in the world.