BlackBerry Gets Back to Business
Less than a year after its strongest pitch yet to high-end wireless consumers with its shiny Pearl handset, Research In Motion has once again turned to the market that made it a success to begin with: corporate users.
RIM (RIMM) used the occasion of the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to announce its long-rumored handset, code-named Indigo. Officially known as the BlackBerry 8800, the device will launch first with AT&T (T), the company previously known as Cingular Wireless.
The BlackBerry 8800 is clearly a sibling of the slim and narrow Pearl, and even has a trackball device similar to that on the Pearl, replacing the side-mounted click-wheel that was typical of earlier generations of BlackBerry devices.
Ready to Face iPhone
The new 8800 can't help but be seen as a response to Apple's (AAPL) new iPhone, a device that combines the features of the iPod music player with an advanced mobile phone (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/10/07, "The Future of Apple"). But it also acknowledges the growing success of handsets running Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile software, like Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) iPaq family of handhelds (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/12/07, "HP Repackages the iPaq") and other smartphone devices from Motorola (MOT), Nokia (NOK), and Palm (PALM).
The new BlackBerry also is notable for something that hasn't been common on products from RIM—navigation. If you're lost or need turn-by-turn directions to a particular address, the device can help you get where you need to go.
It's not the first time that RIM has added navigation to a BlackBerry device, but it's the first time the feature has appeared in one of RIM's mainstream gadgets. Previously, navigation has appeared primarily in BlackBerry devices sold for use on the iDen wireless network operated by Nextel, now a unit of Sprint Nextel (S).
Small Player's Big Win
Making global positioning system (GPS) navigation a headline feature of the latest BlackBerry flagship is a big win for the company that provides the technology behind it, a small operation in Santa Clara, Calif., called TeleNav.
TeleNav co-founder Sal Dhanani says the relationship between TeleNav and RIM has been a close one. "When Nextel was launching its first BlackBerry device, navigation was a key feature, and so Nextel basically made us work closely together," he says.
Launched in 1999, TeleNav is the brainchild of Bob Rennard, a former U.S. Air Force engineer who was on the original team that designed the GPS of satellites, and H.P. Jin, a former technical director at Loral Space & Communications (LORL).
Standing Out in a Crowd
Jin and Rennard saw the growth in wireless phones and observed intense interest among small companies in getting handsets Internet-ready with browsers and other software, and figured navigation would be a natural fit. By that time, companies like Garmin (GRMN) and Magellan were watching their business shift away from selling primarily to hikers, hunters, and boaters toward helping motorists find their way using GPS-based technology.
At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission came down with its E911 mandate, which essentially ordered all wireless carriers and phone manufacturers to find a way to make it easy for emergency personnel to locate a wireless phone when its owner dials 911.
Carriers using one flavor of network technology—CDMA—like Verizon Wireless and Sprint opted to use a technology based on GPS, meaning that phones for those networks have GPS chips built in. Carriers using the other flavor of wireless technology—GSM—like T-Mobile (DT) and Cingular-AT&T opted for an approach that relies more on determining the phone's position relative to wireless towers. As a result, it's rare for GSM phones to contain GPS chips, which sets RIM's 8800 apart from others like it in the market.
"The GSM companies basically avoided using GPS because of the additional cost," Dhanani says. "But using the network-based approach didn't work as well as was hoped, and so I think you'll be seeing more GSM phones getting GPS chipsets." That represents an important opportunity for TeleNav, and an advantage (at least temporarily) to RIM.
But RIM isn't TeleNav's only partner. The company has versions of its navigation software running on Windows Mobile, the Palm operating system, Symbian, Qualcomm's (QCOM) Brew, and the Java-based J2ME environment from Sun Microsystems (SUNW).
And TeleNav isn't the only player in its own space. One competitor, a startup called Networks In Motion, offers wireless carriers a navigation service they can include on the phones they carry. Its partners include Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and Alltel Wireless (AT).
Meanwhile, RIM isn't the only device maker adding navigation as a major feature. Finland's Nokia announced its 6110 Navigator phone, a GPS-enabled phone that is the result of Nokia's acquisition last year of gate5, a German company. Additionally, Nokia struck a patent licensing deal with Trimble Navigation (TRMB) that allows the handset maker to use some of Trimble's technology in its devices.
In addition to navigation, the 8800 is also a powerful Internet-enabled messaging device that will do what BlackBerry devices have always done well—e-mail—as well as music and video.