BlackBerry Thumbs a Ride With Home Users

Research in Motion turns to the consumer market, even gamers.


Not that RIM execs would predict the BlackBerry will become the gaming platform of choice. While the company reaches for more consumers, RIM's personality remains tightly wed to its corporate roots. Lazaridis's comments repeatedly return to basics, including security and reliability—of a "stress free" day for users. He talks of engineering, design, and science and of trade-offs between features like big, sexy touch-screens and drained batteries. "There is a massive set of paradoxes that must be dealt with," he says.

Similarly, the RIM complex almost hums with sober seriousness. The company has been in business for 24 years; it was coincidental that BlackBerry launched amid the Internet bubble. No ping-pong tables or lava lamps of dot-com upstarts at RIM's buildings, despite most of them abutting a university.

That's the University of Waterloo, which Lazaridis, 47, left a month before graduating to found RIM. As an undergrad, he'd won a lucrative contract from General Motors for an early wireless technology. RIM eventually moved into paging. From there, Lazaridis could see that hand-helds would become something more complex. The gamble was if the technology was ready.

RIM chose to make sure by building an end-to-end system, a private network that links every BlackBerry to operations centers whose exact locations are treated as corporate secrets. They control the flow of data between corporate servers, such as those that handle a company's E-mail, and the 350 wireless networks on which BlackBerry operates. "It's why your BlackBerry just works when you step off a plane anywhere," Lazaridis says. It's also why RIM's service can fail, as it has in occasional, hours-long outages. RIM executives say they understand and are investing to minimize outages. "I get it. I get it," says co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

But the hiccups have helped competitors, particularly Microsoft, which has taken dead aim at RIM's corporate clients. "Routing data through a single point also makes it a single point of failure," says Microsoft's Traynor. Even Apple, whose iPhone was originally a consumer product, is targeting corporations by improving security. RIM, in turn, is said to be developing a touch-screen model to compete for customers drawn by the iPhone's big monitor and slick software.

Analysts say RIM needs new models to appeal to consumers, moving beyond its versions with a full qwerty keyboard and the Pearl's traditional keypad. RIM has proved an innovative company that's willing to do the unexpected, says Gartner's Dulaney. The company successfully moved from its hugely popular trackwheel to a trackball, which is better for Web surfing. Stay tuned for more handset changes, adds Balsillie at RIM: "There is no religion to what we do in packaging." The genuflecting instead is left to reliability and security, which RIM execs hope will be as important to consumers as to corporations. They think those basics will keep new customers bowing, with equal fervor and serenity, to new generations of BlackBerrys.