Jim Balsillie takes a shine to Pearl

TORONTO – Research In Motion chairman and co-CEO Jim Balsillie flashed his shiny, new BlackBerry Pearl as he talked about the ubiquity of the popular handheld device as a collaboration tool for work and personal use to a Bay St. crowd on Monday.

Balsillie, who spoke at a Speakers Forum lecture series at a downtown Toronto hotel, shied away from questions about when the latest BlackBerry release would be available in Canada except to say that it will be before the end of the month.

“Heaven forbid September should end without these things announced,” quipped Balsillie during the question and answer session of Monday’s event.

In a Sept. 7 press release announcing the new BlackBerry, RIM said Rogers Wireless will start offering the device to its customers in October. The Pearl has been available in the U.S. since September 12 from T-Mobile USA and will be available from European carriers starting in October, according to the company.

The handheld device market really heated up last year with Microsoft’s announcement that it would license Windows Mobile to Palm’s Treo Smartphones. Balsillie admits that Microsoft poses a credible threat to the RIM empire in the handheld landscape, jokingly referring to “the inevitability of being crushed by Microsoft if not today but tomorrow morning.”

Balsillie’s speech focused on the core of RIM’s service: the ability to deliver products that allow businesses to collaborate with each other efficiently and in a timely manner. To highlight how devices like the BlackBerry have changed the way people conduct business, Balsillie said that five or six years ago, the usual response time for an e-mail was several days whereas nowadays if you don’t get back to someone within a day, they take it personally.

“People want access to collaborating in asynchronous framing — even if they use asynchronous means to plan a synchronous event,” he said, referring to a phone call as an example of the latter. “A phone call has a lot of set up and take down. It’s very inefficient for the velocity of business.”

The ability to collaborate in this way and not the device itself is what has made the BlackBerry so addictive, Balsillie said.

“I get it when I want it and I respond when I can in the way that I want,” he said, describing the user’s mentality. “That’s the addictiveness. Everybody’s drawn to the vortex of collaboration.”

Balsillie traced the origin of the BlackBerry’s popularity to its first user groups such as sales, financial institutions and lawyers. He credited RIM with helping these professions facilitate collaboration in a world that had been very difficult to do so pre-BlackBerry. But, Balsillie added, becoming comfortable with using this kind of technology did not come right away.

“If you throw a frog into boiling water, it jumps out. If you turn it up one degree at a time, the frog becomes cooked,” he said.

A large part of RIM’s ability to deliver collaborative services is due to its hundreds of partners such as IBM, SAS Institute and Oracle that develop applications for the BlackBerry. There are currently over 1,000 lifestyle applications that exist for the device, according to Balsillie. Two-thirds of RIM’s 80,000 servers around the globe are currently handling apps outside of e-mail, he added.

“The issue on corporate applications is new ways of accessing applications that they already have,” said Balsillie, adding that CRM software is one of the most used applications on the BlackBerry. “It’s much more about access than it is about features.”

Balsillie also touched on the personal side of the BlackBerry. The new Pearl, for example, features a Google Maps application that allows the user to send directions (written and graphical) to other people from virtually any city in the world. He talked about future applications such as one that will allow users to purchase flowers from FTD or chocolates from Godiva from their BlackBerry and have them sent to whoever without every having to enter a store.

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