The push email market may have plenty of room for growth, but competition is expected to grow significantly over the next few years, particularly as Microsoft sets its sights increasingly on the mobile space.
But this situation raises the question of whether current leader Research in Motion (RIM), with its BlackBerry offering, will be able to maintain its position or whether it is destined simply to become an also-ran — or acquisition target — as the sector continues to mature, expand and consolidate.
According to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, less than 10 percent of the 100 million potential subscribers worldwide are currently using push email services, with businesses currently making up the majority of purchasers.
The market, he believes, has to date been held back because "it is still too hard to set these things up and smartphones that use push are still too large and difficult to use for most".
While the BlackBerry "remains one of the most attractive devices in the segment" and is "comparatively easy to use", the advantage of going with a Microsoft Mobile 6 and Exchange 2007 combination, for example, is that there is no need to set up a separate back-end push email server, "although the settings on the phone can be daunting".
Using RIM, on the other hand, does require the installation of a separate BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which means that there is "yet one more device to set up and administer, though the phone is still harder to set up than it should be". Another issue is the cost of such services, which Enderle also reckons has to come down for the market to reach its full potential, particularly in the consumer space.
But the big test for RIM over the next two years or so will be the rising levels of competition in a market that it has more or less owned since the BlackBerry was first launched in 1999. Beyond the most dangerous of rivals in the shape of Microsoft, device manufacturers such as Motorola and Palm also have RIM solidly in their sights, as do mobile network operators such as Vodafone.
The mobile operator has, for example, just launched the Vodafone Application Service in conjunction with mobile workforce management and field service software supplier Dexterra to try and gain a larger share of the enterprise market for mobile applications access, another sector that RIM is pursuing.
But, while Microsoft may not appear to be particularly menacing at the moment, as Jeremy Green, principal analyst for mobility at Ovum, pointed out: "No-one ever got fired for buying Microsoft. It's got the weight of marketing resources behind it and excellent channels into the corporate market. If you look at Netscape versus Internet Explorer, for example, Netscape was the better browser but, when Microsoft went after the market, it got it."
As a result, although RIM is still currently the dominant player, with the biggest market share of the push email space, "whether it can hold this in the face of Microsoft is another matter. It poses a big threat." This is not least because, while RIM may have a better understanding of the mobile environment at the moment, "Microsoft is getting there".
But Charmaine Eggberry, EMEA vice president for RIM, is sanguine. She pointed out that the company now has eight million subscribers worldwide, some 70 percent of whom are no longer using their BlackBerry simply for push email. Instead they are also employing it to access corporate applications, such as SAP and Oracle, as well as lifestyle packages, such as gaming and health, while on the move.
"People buy BlackBerry because it does what it says on the tin and it's very easy to use, whether you're an individual consumer or a corporate. An underlying theme is that customers buy it because of its ease of use and because it's easy to set up," Eggberry said. "We have more than 70,000 distinct organisations using BlackBerrys to access their personal and corporate secrets 24/7 and we ensure that security is at the heart of the product. It's not about a service pack or other add-on. It's all part of the experience."
Moreover, pricing is not set by RIM itself, but by the network operators, which, in Europe, have "got very aggressive about pricing in the last while, offering things like packages for unlimited data access. So, from the European perspective, we've seen downward pressure on pricing, which bodes well for the consumer".
As for rising levels of competition, Eggberry indicated that only about two percent of the total available European market is using mobile email, which means that...