Microsoft's flurry of announcements out of Barcelona, Spain, this week promising cheaper, faster, easier mobile e-mail might have awakened the world at large to the benefits of push e-mail and the load of trouble BlackBerry vendor Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) is up against.
But plenty of IT managers apparently did not require this week's Microsoft news to spur them to action.
Several CIOs said yesterday they are already testing alternatives to RIM technology -- and spending time playing company shrink to anxious BlackBerry users.
"My CEO came up to me just last week, again," said Rich De Brino, Compass Health CIO. "I said, 'Don't worry about it. We've got it under control.' Everybody is more nervous than we are." De Brino is among the CIOs who heeded analyst warnings regarding an alleged RIM patent infringement and stopped issuing BlackBerrys to employees at the Everett, Wash.-based not-for-profit.
If BlackBerry service is interrupted, De Brino is ready to go with "Plan B," an alternative solution using a Pocket PC from Samsung Corp. and Good Technology Inc. "We could scale everybody to Good [Technology] within a week, easily. We literally have a written plan in place. We don't mess around."
With 4.3 million BlackBerry customers, including 3.5 million in the United States, RIM's "CrackBerry" has become the personal digital assistant (PDA) of choice for the executive set. So executives like De Brino took notice when recent court judgments in RIM's court battle over possible patent infringement with NTP Inc., the tiny Virginia holding company that's been a thorn in RIM's side since 2002, raised the possibility of a BlackBerry blackout for U.S. users.
MS in the mix
The software giant's much-publicized push into mobile e-mail has been played out in headlines as a direct assault on RIM at a time when the Waterloo, Ontario-based company is vulnerable. But that, says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Ellen Daley, grossly misreads the Microsoft mindset.
"Microsoft's strategy is so much bigger than RIM, it's not even funny," Daley said, adding that the timing is "maybe a little accelerated because of the RIM uncertainty. But really the bottom line is what Microsoft is trying to do is own mobility -- both from the consumer and enterprise perspective."
Daley, who covers the wireless market for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester, continued, "[Microsoft] can say to customers, 'OK, Cingular, T-Mobile and Vodafone all have a Windows Mobile device that has the software on it that you can push e-mail from Microsoft. That's a marketing strategy -- good for Microsoft, bad for RIM."
Of course, it should be noted that RIM has offered a workaround, but analysts (and CIOs) say the details are vague -- and that's to be expected from a company in the midst of a patent dispute. Many analysts are predicting a court settlement rather than a BlackBerry blackout.
"RIM certainly does understand that a disruption to their U.S. service would be far more detrimental to its future business than a large settlement," said Kevin Burden, who covers wireless devices at Framingham, Mass.-based consultancy IDC. "If it has to pay out $1 billion or more, sure that hurts. But it doesn't hurt as much as interrupting the service."
Casino taking no chances
At the American Indian-owned Viejas Casino in Alpine, Calif., BlackBerrys are an essential part of doing business in an around-the-clock environment, said CIO Moti Vyas. About 130 BlackBerrys are in use. The casino has been testing Microsoft solutions since November 2005, about the time it first heard about BlackBerry's patent battle, Vyas said.
"First we upgraded our e-mail system to accept [Microsoft's Exchange Server] 2003, and then we bought two devices in December, Treo 650 and Treo 700. We are testing Treo 700, as we speak, and it is working. That device can send and receive e-mails, of course, and it is best on Windows Mobile operating system," Vyas said.
The casino uses Verizon Communications Inc., its provider, for the wireless technology and then it connects to an Exchange server on the back end, which pushes the data out. "The solution is not as elegant or as seamless as BlackBerry, but it is very close," Vyas said. If BlackBerry shuts down, the casino will buy Treos in bulk and roll them out, he said. And if it does not?
"That's a good question. I have been trying to negotiate prices with BlackBerry for a long time, and because they had a monopoly they did not meet my requirement. So now that I have an alternate solution, I might just go with the alternate solution," he said.
Cliff Bell, CIO at Phoenix Technologies Ltd., is also confident that Microsoft will emerge as a leader in the consolidating market for PDAs. The Milpitas, Calif.-based software maker has about $100 million in revenue and a goal of keeping the company's vendor list short. Bell is in the process of upgrading the company's Exchange servers to SP2, a requirement for Windows Mobile 5.0. Early next week, he will get a pre-release Treo 700 with the updates for controlling the phone.
"Although the Microsoft solution is not as good," said Bell (in an e-mail sent from his PDA), "it is my belief Microsoft will have a capable solution."Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer