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Fran�ois Jooste, a game tester for Magmic, an Ottawa-based mobile game developer. (Blair Gable For The Globe and Mail)
Fran�ois Jooste, a game tester for Magmic, an Ottawa-based mobile game developer. (Blair Gable For The Globe and Mail)

Business

RIM's split personality strategy Add to ...

What's not clear is how much that advantage will matter in the long run. Wireless carriers may simply decide instead to spend the billions necessary to upgrade their networks to handle all the new traffic. Estimates of just how much mobile traffic will grow are varied, but none are small. Cisco Systems, for example, estimated that worldwide mobile traffic will double every year between 2009 and 2014.

And hidden within these statistics are other factors that don't bode well for RIM. For one thing, a lot of the pressure on carriers will come not from smart phones, but from the fast-growing ranks of wireless-enabled tablets, netbooks and other mobile computers. Because of their faster processors and bigger memory, these devices tend to consume much more data - and unlike Apple, which began selling its iPad tablet computer this month, RIM has no device in that market.

Perhaps more worrying for RIM is the kind of data that's spurring mobile bandwidth usage. Overwhelmingly, video and multimedia content is driving usage, as consumers use their smart phones to watch sites such as YouTube. Using data from Rogers Wireless, analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein estimate that BlackBerrys use a tenth of the bandwidth used by an iPhone for a text e-mail, and about half the bandwidth of an iPhone for an average web page. But when it comes to video, the two devices use exactly the same amount of bandwidth - RIM's efficiency advantage becomes moot.

Different, but the same

There is, however, no shortage of confidence on RIM's part that its can still translate whatever technological edge remains into consumer success - even if it is at a sizable marketing disadvantage compared to Apple. This week, even as rival handset maker Palm Inc. was raising the white flag by selling out in a desperation deal to Hewlett-Packard, Mr. Lazaridis strode onto the stage that will.i.am later occupied and told an audience of his biggest customers that RIM wants to put BlackBerrys in 100-million peoples' hands - more than double the 41-million currently using the devices.

"As excited as I am about what we've accomplished so far, I'm even more excited about where we're going tomorrow," he said, sounding nothing like a man whose company has also considered selling to the highest bidder, as Bay Street rumours have suggested from time to time.

"Everyone in this audience - IT professionals, developers, carrier partners - you're all here today because of the vast opportunity RIM provides."

To get to 100-million customers, RIM needs to mimic its dominance in the corporate world to the consumer world, especially in emerging markets such as China - and it needs to do this at a time when smart-phone competition is growing. HP's Palm purchase sets the stage for another tech industry heavyweight to join RIM, Google, Microsoft and a host of others in the fight for mobile supremacy.

That's why RIM's sights appear set on attacking the consumer market with a strategy that disrupts its bread-and-butter enterprise business as little as possible. In the past year, the company has systematically gone about updating some key areas in which it lags behind competitors, including the BlackBerry Web-browsing experience and user interface. Indeed, perhaps the two biggest announcements at a conference aimed at corporate clients were the launch of a new consumer-oriented Pearl phone and the upcoming release of BlackBerry 6, an operating system with upgraded graphics and a better web browser.

"As they ramp up efforts to target the consumer market, they really have made a strong effort to update the front-end software - from browsing to (user interface) to bundled and downloadable apps," says Ronald Gruia, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

"Traditionally, people looked at the user interface and said yes it's reliable and functional, but it essentially has been the same for a good number of years," he added.

"They are working on this." Correction: A chart accompanying a story in Saturday's Report On Business incorrectly listed Research In Motion as fifth among phone-makers in terms of units shipped during the first quarter of 2010. Data from IDC shows RIM was fourth, with Sony in fifth place.

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