RIM Looks to BlackBerry Spread

Pager pusher Research In Motion Limited (RIM) has announced a deal with Analog Devices Inc. that will see the Canadian company offering other firms a hardware and software platform to build “advanced wireless phones and handheld devices” based on its BlackBerry technology. However, if this is a bid to get into the smartphone market, the company has left it rather late, and it is not clear what other kinds of companies might use its technology.

“Who will license from RIM?” asks Seamus McAteer, principal analyst at Zelos Group LLC. “Open question. Dell [which currently resells the BlackBerry devices] could conceivably get into the business, but it has got its hands full with picking up lots of server business now that Compaq and Hewlett-Packard are tying the cord. I doubt if Dell wants to get into Nokia's business. Sony Ericsson Mobile is a possibility, although they have their hands full right now. Samsung licenses from everyone else and is a maybe. I can't really see how RIM competes with Symbian, Linux, Aplix (in Java), Wavecom (in modules), Nokia, etc., etc.”

In the broadest sense, it is clear what RIM is doing: making a bid to proliferate its technology beyond the popular wireless email pager that made its name and earn some royalties in the process. “RIM is trying to do what everyone else in the handset business is doing -- license IP. These guys look at ARM or Qualcomm's margins and salivate,” says McAteer. However, it is not clear how successful this strategy will be, because it is not clear who will use the reference design.

Do not look to RIM itself for any answers. The company is being typically tight-lipped about what OEMs it is working with (if any) or what kind of royalties it expects to see from the reference design. In fact, the company is not making any further comment other than a brief press release. Unstrung called and emailed company representatives in the U.K. and the U.S. with a bundle of questions about the technical and financial aspects of the deal. “I’m afraid that, other than the announcement, there is no further information available,” a U.K spokesperson for RIM (eventually) told us.

So, this is what we do know about the deal. Analog Devices plans to provide participating manufacturers with an integrated processor that supports both wireless communications and Java applications on a single chip. We take this to mean (since the company isn’t saying) that RIM and Analog Devices will provide manufacturers with a digital signal processor-based baseband controller twinned with a Java accelerator in a system-on-chip configuration.

RIM has already announced that VoiceStream Wireless Corp. is going to offer subscribers a combined GSM phone and email device, while Nextel Communications Inc. has worked with RIM on an email device that enables users to communicate with other Nextel handset users in their local area using voice-over-IP technology -- like a digital version of a walkie-talkie.

This gives some indication of the kind of devices that manufacturers using the RIM technology may develop. However, like the devices that RIM is shipping to mm02 PLC (formerly BT Cellnet), they are likely to run over the newer, faster general packet radio service (GPRS) networks. “I wouldn’t expect to see a device from a third party until Christmas 03 at the earliest, by which time the RIM platform may be looking kind of tired,” McAteer comments.

And the problem remains that RIM is not likely to win out against Microsoft Corp. and Symbian if it sees this reference design as a way to try and take them on in the smartphone market. Those companies have the handset vendors backing them and have signed up many more operators than RIM in the past few years.

It is possible, however, that some more unexpected names might use the RIM design to develop wireless communications devices that focus on email but offer some voice capabilities. For instance, ISPs like AOL Time Warner Inc. and EarthLink Inc. already offer BlackBerry pagers to their subscribers. So, the reference design could allow them to build devices more specifically targeted at their particular audiences. For instance, AOL and EarthLink might be tempted to develop low-cost email devices for their devices, as the $400 price tag of the original BlackBerry has always been an issue for these consumer-orientated ISPs. However, this is an untested sector for the ISPs and certainly isn’t likely to be a high-volume market in the way mobile phones are.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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