Why RIM may be on the edge of something big

BlackBerry users are ditching their laptops. Will you follow suit?

Rich Santalesa Has RIM brought us to a tipping point?

That's the feeling I got when I finished digesting Goldman Sachs' April report, "PDAs storm the enterprise," which details the investment firm's positive opinion of Research In Motion, the Ontario-based maker of the BlackBerry wireless handheld. After reading the 35-page report, a light went on in my head when I realized how the wireless and handheld pieces could align in the future.

First, it's no secret that PC makers, from Dell to your local white-box assembler, are hurting. Market channels have slowed, margins are down, and the golden age of conventional PCs sales--barring some breakthrough--appears to be firmly behind us.

Ask yourself this simple question: Why is RIM's BlackBerry such a hit? Wireless? Nope. Two-way wireless messaging à la the BlackBerry has been around for years, and failed before. PC integration? Don't make me laugh. The BlackBerry's link to the desktop is extremely basic. The ability to interact with desktop documents? Hardly. A wide range of third-party programs? I can't find them. So why has the humble BlackBerry become today's "hot" wireless connection? One word: keyboard.

The BlackBerry's small, but very functional, keyboard is the main reason behind its growth into the premier wireless e-mail device. The Palm, Visor, and Pocket PC devices are all terrific at organizing schedules and such, but for everyday e-mail, stylus-centric PDAs tend to degrade quickly into spewing out SMS-like messages along the lines of "CuL8R" and "Ru@WRK?" How much of that can you stomach?

Argue all you like, but there's no getting around it--the keyboard will remain the main means of getting one's thoughts into a computing device, and this is why I found the Goldman Sachs report so revealing. Over 13 months, Goldman Sachs tracked 175 laptop users who had been issued BlackBerrys. The study measured, among other things, how the BlackBerry affected their PC use.

The results were startling. In the study group, laptop PC use decreased by 45 percent overall once the study subjects were given BlackBerrys. More dramatically, and somewhat counterintuitively, the "power users" in the sample group decreased their laptop use by a momentous 70 percent, while 19 percent of the entire sample gave up their laptops completely. Goldman Sachs further calculated that the yearly total cost of ownership (TCO) of an enterprise laptop came to $9,700 per user vs. just $2,000 for the BlackBerry. Goldman Sachs concluded, "We believe that after the desktop, the handheld device is probably the most critical piece of equipment, more than a cell phone or laptop, and could become the second most prevalent piece of IT equipment in and out of the office."

Surprised? I think we're nearly upon one of those inflection points. As handhelds and wireless gather momentum, the pieces will gradually click into place. When they do, I fully expect a double-digit percentage of corporate laptops to gather dust. But it's important to note that while nearly 20 percent of the users in the Goldman Sachs study gave up their laptops completely, they didn't necessarily stop using desktops, and I'm certainly not saying wireless handhelds are drop-in PC replacements. The PC's power and flexibility bring to the table abilities unduplicated by any handheld today.

Nevertheless, the growing potential for handhelds and PDAs to grab the baton of everyday e-mail and other chores opens a huge and valuable landscape surrounding the crossroads of mobility, connectivity, and productivity. I'll be digging into this triple point in a future column.

Do your wireless handheld plans include a keyboard? Talk Back below. Rich Santalesa is the chief analyst at PDA & Wireless World, an editorial, network, and wireless analysis firm based in New York.


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