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Mobile Email Monoculture Fades

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading

At this point, it seems, a workaround won't cut it.

With yesterday's lawyer-vetted, IT-friendly alternative software for running Blackberry devices, BlackBerry hopes to reassure restless customers and hold on to its dominant position in the North American enterprise mobile email market. With 4.3 million Blackberry subscribers, many of them corporate executives, financial analysts, and government officials, Blackberry has to date been able to fend off competition from rivals offering similar products based on Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Windows Mobile, Symbian Ltd. , Palm, or other operating systems.

Now, however, an array of market forces is pushing the mobile email market toward more interoperability and common software platforms -- and away from Blackberry's proprietary, combined hardware-and-software model.

Fully defined industry standards for mobile email may never become a reality, just as there is no single standard platform for corporate email systems. But according to IT managers, mobility solutions providers, and device makers, the move toward quasi-standardization -- i.e., a broad range of interoperability across various devices and operating systems beyond the Blackberry -- has gathered steam in recent months.

"As other platforms, like Good, Visto, Seven, and Nokia become more commonplace," notes Daniel Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, "Blackberry will become Balkanized and will be forced to interoperate."

A powerful combination
There are plenty of recent headlines to back up that contention. Consider:

  • Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) today completed its acquisition of mobile applications developer Intellisync Corp. (Nasdaq: SYNC), creating a powerful combination of a dominant phone manufacturer and a maker of email software that will run on any platform and any device. (See Nokia Wraps Up Intellisync Buy.)

  • Attempting to make its operating system a de facto standard for mass-market mobile email, Symbian this week announced a "validation program" that will provide software support and an approval stamp for vendors offering mobile-phone applications running on Symbian's OS. (See Symbian Cuts OS License Fees.)

  • Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL)'s latest Collaboration Suite, released last fall, includes support for "Push-IMAP," a protocol that allows unified messaging – i.e., the delivery of email to a variety of wireless devices over public networks.

  • Open-source developer Funambol this week released an open-source mobile email platform, Funambol v.3, that works over Blackberries, Microsoft Windows Mobile devices, and WAP-enabled phones. (See Email Gets Open-Source Push.)

  • Running on Windows Mobile 5.0, Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)'s Q handheld, wireless email device hits the enterprise market this quarter, joining a raft of new devices offering alternative, non-proprietary mobile devices. (See CES: Moto's Slim RIM Killer?)

In isolation, each of these is simply a move to capture a wider slice of a market with huge upside potential. Datamonitor released a report last November calculating that the potential market for mobile email comprises some 260 million enterprise users. Taken together, they describe a business growing beyond an early-adopter, monoculture environment to a more diverse ecosystem of devices and software that all work with each other.

Device driven
"Our view is that the nature of mobile email is going to change, and change rapidly," says Simon Garth, Symbian's London-based VP of marketing. "Today it's about buying a specialist device to do a specialist job; in a short space of time, it will be about a feature readily available on your mobile phone -- email will be just another service you sign up for on your mobile."

"What's driving the market are the devices," adds Alex Zaltsman, a partner at New Jersey-based IT services firm Exigent Technologies, which he says has around 50 mobile email customers. All but two or three now using Treos rather than Blackberries. "Five years ago, when RIM was the only game in town, it was just a matter of choosing which Blackberry you wanted to get. Now other manufacturers are coming out with interesting devices that are as portable as the Blackberry, but have more multimedia features, better Web browsing, and are able to run a variety of different applications."

Ultimately, an open-standards environment makes sense for carriers, device makers, applications developers -- and for enterprise customers.

"The majority of mobile phone applications are still inside this walled garden," observes Dave Rosenberg, CTO of San Francisco investment research firm Glass Lewis, "and sooner or later that's going to have to go away."

"Software has to work with all carriers," Rip Gerber, Intellisync's chief marketing officer, told a press roundtable in London in January. "People will want any application to work on any device on any network. Open standards will drive down costs. As the market matures, the technology will have to open up."

And it means that, regardless of the outcome of its long-running legal battle, RIM -- which was founded in 1984 and has enjoyed a virtual monopoly since introducing the Blackberry in 1998 -- may find itself in the unusual position of having to adapt.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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