Like Google in search engines and Hoover in vacuum cleaners, Research In Motion (RIM) has achieved the distinction of having its product turned into a verb.

Almost 3m people around the world now "BlackBerry" their friends and colleagues with messages using the Canadian company's distinctive hand-held device.

The BlackBerry has transformed RIM over the past six years from an obscure supplier of two-way pagers into the maker of one of world's hottest products.

RIM reported earlier this week that it had signed up 470,000 new subscribers in the quarter to February 29; it expects to add more than 500,000 more over the next three months. The BlackBerry has recently made its debut in India, Brazil, Poland, South Africa and the eastern Caribbean, among others.

RIM shares have rocketed from less than $10 in autumn 2002 to $73 this week, after a two-for-one share split last year. The company now has a market value of $14bn,overtaking Nortel Networks, the troubled telecommunications equipment supplier, as Canada's technology superstar.

Not surprisingly, RIM's success is attracting attention from some of the giants of the communications and software industries (see below), and observers are wondering how long the upstart from Waterloo, Ontario, can sustain its phenomenal record.

One possible threat comes from the biggest technology company of them all. Microsoft plans this year to launch the latest version of its Windows Mobile software, which some are billing as a potential "BlackBerry killer". In particular, the new Microsoft product is expected to emulate BlackBerry's "push" e-mail capability, where new messages pop up automatically in the in-box.

Alex Slawsby, an analyst at International Data Corporation, the research group, says that "simply having the device and the loyalty may not be the advantage that it once was".

The BlackBerry's original - and still most popular - use as an e-mail device was "the lowest hanging fruit", Mr Slawsby notes. "Now people are starting to say: what else can you do for me?"

RIM's epitaph has been written many times before as one aspiring rival after another - Palm, Handspring, Danger and even such giants as Microsoft and Dell Computer - has sought to muscle into its market.

The Canadian company suffered a setback last month when it agreed to pay $450m to a US patent-holding company to settle a patent infringement claim. The settlement pushed RIM to a fourth-quarter loss of $2.6m, compared with a $41.5m profit a year earlier.

Still, the BlackBerry - whose name comes from the supposed resemblance of the miniature keyboard on its original device to the beads of the fruit - "remains the pre-eminent mobile messaging solution in the market today", says Jason Tsai, analyst at ThinkEquity Partners, an investment bank.

RIM has so far kept the competition at bay with a canny, three-pronged strategy: expanding its target market, co-opting potential rivals as partners and customers and constantly adding fresh features to the BlackBerry device and its supporting software.

The BlackBerry began life as a high-end gadget for Wall Street investment bankers, Washington politicians and corporate executives. Their employers not only covered the cost, but had the server technology required to link the device to a computer network. More recently, RIM has turned its attention to the "prosumer" or professional consumer retail market, which now makes up about one-fifth of its subscriber base.

With an eye on individual buyers, RIM introduced web-based software that eliminates the need to link a BlackBerry to a corporate server. The latest versions can be connected to e-mail and other applications at the time of purchase.

RIM has vastly broadened its market by licensing almost 100 distributors, including many of the world's biggest mobile phone companies. RIM provided training for 600 phone company sales representatives in North America last quarter.

BlackBerry distributors include Vodafone, Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile. RIM expects to sign up China Mobile Communications later this year. To make the devices more affordable, many carriers offer BlackBerry contracts similar to those for mobile phones.

According to Mr Tsai, "the carriers love BlackBerry not only for the higher average revenue per unit it generates, but for the strong margins, since it consumes very little bandwidth".

Unlike some other companies, RIM has not jealously guarded its technology, seeking out alliances with friend and potential foe alike, including Microsoft.

"If you partner well and thoughtfully, you get pulled along by the current," says Jim Balsillie, RIM's joint chief executive.

The Canadian company has also signed dozens of agreements licensing BlackBerry software to other handset makers. High Tech Computer of Taiwan, the biggest maker of Microsoft's Smartphone and Pocket PC, recently expanded its relationship with RIM by integrating BlackBerry technology into all Windows Mobile devices.

RIM's software sales more than doubled in the latest quarter from the previous three months, making up 14 per cent of total revenues.

The BlackBerry itself has continued to evolve. "Part of their magic sauce is the attention to detail on their keyboard," says Andrew Seybold, president of Outlook 4Mobility, a California consultancy. The latest models increasingly resemble a mobile phone. A Chinese-language version is under development.

RIM has also expanded the BlackBerry's applications. It has concluded deals with Yahoo and AOL to integrate their instant messaging technology into the BlackBerry. Other products in the pipeline include devices with wide-band CDMA - which supports multimedia services such as full-motion video and video conferencing - and Wi-Fi technology.

There is widespread agreement that the market for corporate and retail wireless communication has vast potential. Less certain is what it holds in store for the BlackBerry.

Bear Stearns, a Wall Street investment bank, cautioned in a recent report that the growing interest of big software and mobile phone makers could "change the economics of wireless 'push' e-mail from virtual monopolistic pricing to market-driven pricing".

Mr Seybold adds that "the threat could come from Microsoft, if it gets this right". Another question is whether RIM's success will ultimately jeopardise its independence. Mr Balsillie and RIM's founders Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin own only about 16 per cent of the company stock in total. Brant Thompson, analyst at Goldman Sachs, singles out Nokia and Motorola as possible predators.

Mr Slawsby notes that "there are many different companies with designs on being an alternative to RIM". In his view, the BlackBerry's biggest advantage is an intangible one. For the time being, he says, none of its rivals possesses "that buzz-creating element that the public loves".

RELENTLESS RISE OF THE BLACKBERRY KILLERS

A mushrooming array of competitors is seeking to elbow aside the BlackBerry, the popular hand-held e-mail and phone device produced by Research in Motion (RIM). They include:

* Microsoft is quietly billing the latest version of its Windows Mobile programme as a BlackBerry killer. Code-named Magneto and still shrouded in secrecy, the new software is due for release later this year.

* Good Technology, a US vendor, has had significant success with its wireless e-mail software, which runs on, among others, Treo and Microsoft PocketPC hand-held devices. Good has signed licensing deals with several big mobile handset makers and almost 5,000 corporate users.

* E-mail and document software from Seven, a California-based company, is also available on a variety of mobile devices, including the Pocket PC, Palm OS and Symbian-based phones. Seven has signed licensing agreements with several leading mobile operators and device manufacturers.

* Visto, also based in California, provides software for wireless e-mail and personal information management. It can be used on most mobile devices and networks, and is licensed to mobile operators in the US and Canada.

* Mobile handset manufacturers such as Nokia, Motorola and Samsung are adding increasingly sophisticated “private label” software to their handsets.

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