Computerworld

The BlackBerry: In search of the 'prosumer'

TV ads, new developer focus reveal RIM's keen interest in consumer, prosumer market outside of its traditional enterprise base

What's this, a hip new TV ad for BlackBerry smart phones?

And now, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion is making plans for an October developer's conference partly devoted to "Creating Captivating Applications & Services for Consumers"?

Consumers? Really?

Can this be the same RIM that spawned the "CrackBerry" generation of lawyers and financial analysts who would rather cut off their thumbs than give up their BlackBerry smart phones to track hundreds of e-mails and make dozens of wireless phone calls every day.

RIM has been tackling the consumer market for a long time, at least as far back as the introduction of Apple's iPhone more than a year ago. But, RIM won't admit that the iPhone has anything to do with its attention to consumers.

To be sure, RIM is still advanced with its plans to continue to please business customers using the BlackBerry. At its Wireless Enterprise Symposium this week, it announced plans to release its BlackBerry Enterprise Server, version 5, by the end of the year. The server would provide greater ability in distributing applications to users, among other changes.

But the more interesting announcement came the day before symposium. That's when RIM announced its new BlackBerry Bold device that is targeted at power users, but still has the pizazz to lure in consumers. At least, it could lure in the growing market for "prosumers," who are willing to pay more for an device that functions well for the office, but also has features useful when work is done.

Computerworld asked about RIM's interest in the consumer market, especially with the new Bold, and got some insights from RIM and analysts.

When asked who the prime buyer of the Bold will be, Mark Guibert, vice president of RIM's corporate marketing, responded via e-mail that it is "primarily designed for business professionals, but I'm sure it will also prove popular with certain consumers who are power users and want the best." To some analysts, that latter audience sounds the same as Apple's iPhone fans.

Ironically, while Apple 2.0, which is due out next month, will have new features for business users over a faster 3G network from AT&T, RIM is carefully wooing a broader market outside of its traditional Oxford-shirt crowd.

"Our current TV ads, as well as other marketing activities from RIM and its carrier partners, are reaching a broad range of both business professionals and consumers," Guibert said. So far, RIM's biggest hit with consumers is the BlackBerry Pearl because it has "all the power that people want in a BlackBerry smart phone, along with a camera and multimedia features, but it has a smaller design that suits many people who are looking to upgrade from a traditional cell phone."

Still, Guibert said RIM is realistic. "It's difficult to draw a perfect box around each device in terms of consumer or business use," he said. "BlackBerry is doing well in both markets and we continue to invest in both markets."

But when pressed on whether Bold, while obviously different from the iPhone, could still be designed to attract the iPhone constituency, Guibert balked. "We don't think in those terms," he said. "BlackBerry is the top selling smart phone brand in North America, and the market opportunity for smart phones seems to be large and growing, so we deliberately stay focused on our customers. It may sound like a cliche, but that is really how we have become so successful."

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So, just what is the promise of the consumer market for RIM going forward, especially as compared to its success with business users?

"Our strengths and success in the business market help us tremendously in the consumer segment," Guibert said. He noted that e-mail took off sooner for enterprise users than for consumers, but now has become commonplace for personal communications.

Similarly, text messaging and social networking "are both made better for consumers with a high end smart phone like BlackBerry," he said, noting that when RIM introduced software for BlackBerry smart phones that helps users access Facebook, more than 1 million copies were downloaded in less than six months. In addition, he said a large developer community is building BlackBerry smart-phone applications for games and other consumer applications.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, said RIM has clearly shown it is targeting consumers as well as business users. "I think they will have more units" that partly target consumers, he said. "I was surprised this Bold was the only one" announced at WES. "I thought they would launch a clamshell."

Dulaney said he organizes the markets for smart phones into three groups: enterprise, enterprise/prosumer and consumer. The Bold is primarily targeted at the enterprise/prosumer group he said, because it includes a camera. Many enterprises do not want employees to have cameras on their smart phones simply to avoid security restrictions when they visit secure locations, he said.

Still, Dulaney said Bold is expected to sell for US$299 to $349, meaning it will have to be for those who can afford it and are willing to pay well above the cost of many multimedia-capable cell phones purchased by pure consumers, he said.

And if it isn't clear enough by now, Dulaney said RIM will not want to concede any market to Apple or any other vendor. "They are targeting consumers, of course," he said, while continuing to innovate for big business customers.

Lotus Connections to run on the BlackBerry

Also at WES Wednesday, IBM and RIM announced that IBM's social networking software for business users will run on BlackBerry smart phones, the first mobile device to use the software.

IBM Lotus Connections, a Web 2.0 social networking application, is available Wednesday, officials for IBM and RIM told visitors at WES. Lotus Connections software starts at US$110 per user. IBM said it has predicted there will be more than 1 billion Web users by 2011, which will create a significant shift in the way most people interact with the Web.