Sour grapes, bitter BlackBerrys

Hopefully someone out there has been kind enough to e-mail Mike Lazaridis on his BlackBerry and tell him his business model is under attack.

The co-founder of Waterloo, Ont.’s Research In Motion (RIM) would surely want to know that one of its best-known resellers, a company called Motient Corp. in Reston, Va., has developed a modem that will allow Palm V users the kind of always-on e-mail capability that has been the BlackBerry’s hallmark.

This US$179 add-on, called simply the MobileModem, has been in development for more than a year and unwittingly makes Palm’s devices receptacles of push, rather than pull technology. In other words, Motient could allow us to build a better BlackBerry, give us another reason to choose handhelds over a glorified pager.

When he spoke at Comdex Canada earlier this year, Lazaridis was a virtual prophet of push, dismissing the idea of technology devices, like wireless application protocol phones, that required users to do the work. Apparently, Motient, which also ran one of the U.S. BlackBerry networks, has heeded his message. With the MobileModem, it has clearly learned as much as it could from RIM and will now use Palm’s installed base to pull the rug out from under the company. Did somebody say channel conflict?

RIM should have known (and probably did know) this day was coming. BlackBerrys went from executive perk to Hollywood status symbol (“I’ll ‘Berry you,” has become a movie-star catch-phrase, Vanity Fair recently reported), but despite its new interest in the CRM market , RIM is getting dangerously close to looking like a one-trick pony. Its competition includes not merely the Palms and iPaqs of the world but brand-new startups, like the ominously named Danger Research, which are openly trying to copy the best of its designs without infringing on its patents.

Despite the flattering press – particularly here in Canada, where we venerate RIM as a source of national pride – the devices aren’t setting any sales records. In its first report tracking sales of personal digital assistants (PDAs), ACNielsen Research Canada lumped in RIM in the “other” category. You know, the category that accounts for one per cent of the market after Palm, Compaq and HP.

Jennifer Kidd, an analyst there, told me the BlackBerry should be considered a PDA because of the quality of the device and the killer application, but so far, “the numbers just aren’t that high.” It comes as no surprise that Motient, which also plans to bring BlackBerry-style e-mail to the Compaq iPaq, is no longer a RIM channel partner. Like other resellers across the continent, the company has been losing money and cutting back staff, and it may contributed to some of the inventory glut RIM was reportedly dealing with earlier this year. By the same token, RIM has been focusing less on the local market and turning its attention to Europe. It has pinned much of its hopes on larger reseller agreements with the likes of BT Telecom, where presumably the BlackBerry will still smell fresh.

If it managed to avoid stealing any of RIM’s intellectual property, Motient’s MobileModem may be one of the most ingenious instances of a reseller out-developing its vendor partner. Call it a push-back, perhaps, but it’s something Palm and others should have brought us long ago. Finally, someone in the industry is thinking outside the BlackBerry.

sschick@plesman

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