On the surface, the BlackBerry Messenger app is a simple thing. It lets users exchange quick messages over their smart phones. Teens like it because it's fast and cheap. Professionals like it because it's secure and allows them to share information in groups. Often, applications don't work well together on smart phones - a user's calendar may not be able to use the e-mail app to send a user a notification e-mail about a coming appointment, for example. But Messenger, like most of RIM's high-end apps, works seamlessly with its cousins.
BlackBerry Messenger is exactly the sort of app on which RIM is staking its future - a well-built piece of software as popular with consumers as it is with enterprise clients.
According to RIM, more than 20-million people use Messenger. Brokerage firm Morgan Keegan estimates usage is up 500 per cent in the last two years, and 100 per cent in the last 100 days. In surveys, a significant percentage of people cite the software as a reason for buying a BlackBerry in the first place.
Many of the services designed for RIM's devices are aimed squarely at businesses. (Indeed, one of the highlights of the Orlando event was HP's newly announced software that lets users print documents from their BlackBerrys wirelessly.) But there are also developers working on magazine-reading, video and music apps - a significant presence, given that the conference is supposed to be all about corporate clients.
It has taken time for RIM executives to get comfortable with the consumer world, say people in the software application business. "For a long time their focus was solely on enterprise and selling devices into companies, so the idea of games being developed for the platform was scary to them," John Criswick, founder of Magmic, an Ottawa-based mobile game developer, said in a recent interview. "They weren't ready to make the leap."
Now, he adds, that's no longer a problem. Since launching App World, its application distribution service, RIM has opened up considerably to more consumer-oriented apps.
But most developers agree that building apps for the iPhone is still more straightforward than for the BlackBerry. For one thing, there's only one iPhone, but multiple BlackBerrys with different screen sizes and processing power, meaning developers have to build different versions of their BlackBerry software.
However, RIM's devices also offer developers some often-unacknowledged advantages - for example, the ease with which developers can access its many functions, such as e-mail and the built-in calendar.
And when it comes to the technical side of the smart-phone wars, RIM has a significant lead over many of its competitors, thanks in large part to its corporate upbringing. Since the device's inception, the BlackBerry has functioned primarily as an efficiency tool, a trait that extends to its engineering and design.
For example: The BlackBerry uses less bandwidth than just about any other smart phone on the market. RIM phones download only as much information as needed, rather than e-mails and files in their entirety up front. Data largely runs through RIM's own servers - a decision initially made to keep corporate and government data secure, but one that is now paying off by taking the load off the wireless carriers. Some analysts note that RIM's biggest advantage in the smart phone wars isn't the BlackBerry, but the underlying technology supporting it.
That advantage becomes more important as users migrate from traditional "talk and text" cell phones to smart phones that consume far more data via web sites, applications and multimedia.
Carriers such as AT&T have already felt the implications of the smart phone surge. The American telecom provider suffered well-publicized and embarrassing network slowdowns late last year, partly to the sheer weight of iPhone bandwidth usage. Calls get dropped and wireless web surfing slows down.
As more users opt for more powerful devices, carriers will only suffer more. By some estimates, about half the cell phone users in North America will carry smart phones within the next two years. That gives telecom providers a built-in incentive to promote RIM's phones - often paying subsidies to steer customers toward the BlackBerry - because they cause less of a network strain.