BlackBerry Bold: No Mere iClone

Based on a first look, RIM's new smartphone for corporate users is impressive

This is a great time for anyone who hates to be away from e-mail and the Internet for more than a few minutes at a stretch. Apple (AAPL), which last year redefined the mobile experience with the iPhone, seems poised to introduce an improved version. And market leader Research In Motion (RIMM) has risen to the challenge with the BlackBerry Bold.

When the phone launches this summer, it should be a potent weapon in RIM's fight to defend its dominance of the corporate smartphone market.

A Bold Impression

Unlike recent BlackBerry products such as the super-slim Pearl, the Bold is aimed at the heart of RIM's traditional enterprise market. I had only a brief chance to try it during a meeting with RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, but what I saw was impressive.

The Bold's most striking features are the screen and the keyboard. The screen displays 480 by 320 pixels, the same resolution as the iPhone, though it is significantly smaller and can be used only in a horizontal orientation. The image is sharp and bright with attractive white icons that jump out of a black background. The Bold falls between the Curve and the 8800 series in size, and its keyboard, featuring sculpted and well-separated keys, is as good as those on any handheld.

Like the rumored iPhone 2, the Bold runs on a high-speed, 3G broadband technology called HSDPA (for high-speed downlink packet access) and also works with Wi-Fi. Although RIM has not announced a wireless carrier yet, AT&T (T) is the only U.S. national network whose service matches the Bold's wireless specs. Unfortunately, the browser on the Bold appears to use the same indifferent software as on recent BlackBerrys, so the Web experience leaves a lot to be desired. But the faster technology produces speedy downloads of mail attachments. That makes the Bold the first BlackBerry I'd use to watch streaming video.

A Question of Philosophy

In the year since the iPhone was introduced, both Apple and RIM have enjoyed great success in a rapidly growing smartphone market. Research firm Canalys found that in the fourth quarter of 2007 BlackBerry shipments rose 121% over last year's fourth quarter, and its worldwide share ticked up 2.5 points, to 11.4%. The iPhone quickly captured 6.8% of the market, largely at the expense of Motorola (MOT), Nokia, and Palm.

Next month Apple will make its first serious bid for RIM's core corporate market by introducing a new application that will let iPhones connect to Microsoft Exchange mail servers. The same software allows corporations to manage iPhones remotely, giving them the ability to turn features such as the camera off and to wipe out data if the unit is reported lost or stolen. Apple is licensing the Microsoft (MSFT) ActiveSync software that is also available on Palm (PALM), Nokia (NOK), and Sony Ericsson products as well as handsets running Microsoft's Windows Mobile.

RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) provides a considerably finer degree of corporate control than ActiveSync. (In this way it's similar to Motorola's software, Good Mobile Messenger, for Palm and Windows Mobile.) But the real choice for corporations is between the different philosophies represented by BES and ActiveSync. The BlackBerry seamlessly provides a secure connection between the Exchange mailbox and RIM's network operations centers, which do the heavy lifting of communicating with wireless devices. With the Microsoft solution, companies have to manage their own links with wireless networks. Microsoft and Apple promote the lack of third-party involvement as a security advantage, but I'm not convinced that's how it will appear to the companies that have learned to trust and rely on the BlackBerry.

Everyone can win in this game because the market is far from saturated. Corporations will struggle with tough choices, but the devices and services will keep getting better.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.