RIM's Balsillie: 'Not religious' about form factors; B2B the company's core

The Research in Motion vs. Apple smartphone face-off makes for a good story, but the companies present an interesting business strategy question: Is it better to start in the enterprise and then go consumer or vice versa?

The Research in Motion vs. Apple smartphone face-off makes for a good story, but the companies present an interesting business strategy question: Is it better to start in the enterprise and then go consumer or vice versa?

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In an interview with me at SAP Sapphire (all resources) in Orlando RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie was clear about where he is coming from. Balsillie gets just as jazzed about the enterprise as he does consumer devices like the Pearl. Balsillie says RIM's deal to run SAP's CRM application native could make CRM as important as messaging for wireless customers.

"It's pretty rare that I'm this excited about a B2B application," said Balsillie.

The big picture: Apple is trying to leverage its consumer expertise to take the iPhone corporate. RIM is entrenched in the enterprise and is expanding into the consumer market. It only makes good business strategy for RIM to build a moat around its enterprise business--and you don't get more enterprise than running SAP applications native.

Among the highlights from my conversation with Balsillie:

On plans for a purported clamshell device and a touchscreen phone, Balsillie wasn't going to comment on RIM's product development plans. One leak, courtesy of Boy Genius, featured a clamshell phone that generated buzz among Wall Street analysts and gadget fans a like. Meanwhile, RIM is also reportedly working on an iPhone killer. Balsillie had two main messages here. First, Balsillie said: "We're not religious at all about any form factor." Second, leaks aren't always correct.

On the iPhone and the blend of consumer (B2C) and enterprise phones(B2B), Balsillie said the distinction is overblown. "Apple is obviously leveraging its B2C play, but we've found in wireless that B2B (smartphones) sell through B2C channels. You need B2C to sell B2B. And you have to have both. We view it as a channel play through carriers," he said. "Ninety percent of the work you do in B2B works for B2C."

When asked whether the consumer business was more fun, he noted that "it's like asking which of your two children you love more. You love them the same, but they are different."

Also see: SAP to run apps native on RIM’s BlackBerry

SAP: Security keeps it off Symbian, Windows Mobile, iPhone for now

On building a security moat around its enterprise business, Balsillie said that security is the primary differentiator in the corporate market. "No one overrules the chief security officer," Balsillie said. He reiterated that the BlackBerry platform has 400 security policies and features and has been authorized by the NSA and EU. "Security is fundamental, we're a secure packet tunnel," said Balsillie. "We offer a secured managed tunnel."

On whether CRM can be as important as messaging was to RIM's business, Balsillie said that running SAP CRM natively can be a real differentiator. The ability to run SAP natively, which requires development work on RIM's side, can get workers in the field information more quickly. Running an application natively is faster, synchs easier with corporate software and is more efficient than connecting via a browser. "Latency in leads are just as important as latency in messaging," he said.

On why B2B is overshadowed in wireless, Balsillie said it's just that the consumer market gets more attention. However, he noted that the enterprise is "under tilled ground" for wireless innovation. He noted that RIM's partnership with Lotus Sametime will bring click to call features to smartphones. "Wireless data in the enterprise holds a lot of keys," said Balsillie.

On what's next for the SAP-RIM partnership, Balsillie said future development plans are in the discussion phase. Balsillie noted that CRM was a no brainer since sales people are always in the field. As for next steps, Balsillie said one path would be to expand into adjacent SAP applications for direct store delivery, salesforce automation and human resources. Another path would be to go after analytics and embedded business intelligence. Balsillie said he's leaning toward the latter, but noted that "it's just my opinion" and he would have to consult with developers, product managers and other key people inside RIM and SAP. The challenge is turning analytics into an invisible push function like the BlackBerry's email. In this view, business intelligence would be delivered to your device based on an event. Such a move would be hard for rivals to match and could change the nature of business intelligence applications.

And if you're building a moat around a business you might as well go for the big bang.