Bye-bye, BlackBerry? Not so fast

While the BlackBerry's browser features are lacking, business users still favor its messaging advantages over the iPhone's cool factor

Will Apple iPhone's "greatest show on Earth" sway Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry's business faithful? Hint: Bet on the BlackBerry for business.

Sure, the iPhone's browser bailiwick and coolness factor will appeal to slick, image-conscious execs. Yet the vast majority of the business segment proper won't give up their BlackBerrys -- which have pretty much become a lifeline to their jobs -- anytime soon.

After all, it's only business.

"People who carry the BlackBerry are not in it for the thrill," says InfoWorld chief technology analyst Tom Yager. "The BlackBerry is boring next to the iPhone, but it is the quintessential, always-connected messaging device. Its operation is second nature to professionals, and you can trace that objective back 10 years to its original design."

Put aside, for now, the back-end stuff such as security, support, management, wireless carriers, and even price -- real people choose mobile devices based on personal preferences, not necessarily IT policies. And BlackBerry's signature user-oriented features have become part and parcel to the way people work every day: push messaging, apps running in the background, always-on instant messaging, and, of course, the venerable and practical hardware keyboard for serious and, at times, lengthy correspondence that needs to happen, well, now. In contrast, the iPhone's touch keyboard has been criticized for being unwieldy for such typing correspondence.

So the real question is this: Can the iPhone compete against BlackBerry's messaging strengths?

The BlackBerry's messaging advantage

In the United States, the BlackBerry reigns among business users -- but the race is just starting to heat up. A Forrester Research survey released last week showed that smartphones -- which includes the BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia's E-series, and Palm's Treo -- are making their way into the hands of employees at a rapid rate. The number of employees using smartphones is expected to double to 82 per cent in 2013.

The BlackBerry stole execs' hearts with its push messaging many moons ago. Even captains of industry went on record saying they'd be lost without their BlackBerry's incessant and familiar buzzing. Last week, Apple touted the same push feature in iPhone 2.0. A major coup? Depends on how you define push messaging.

The first iPhone could check for new e-mail only every 15 minutes or other user-designated interval; but when it ships in July, the iPhone 2.0 software will give both iPhone 3G and current iPhone (as well as iPod Touch) devices push-messaging capabilities via a back-end Microsoft system. The problem, says Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, is that it won't be perfect.

"I'll use an [existing] Microsoft device as an example," Dulaney says. "Say you get a partial download of a message, and so you scroll down and try to get the rest of the message. It can take 20 seconds, but with RIM, it's instant. RIM has very granular control of e-mail."

RIM achieves this thanks to its own network, which Apple doesn't have. "You can't have push without a proprietary network that gives you a presence in real time and lets inbound messages float around in the ether until it sees you're able to receive it," Yager explains.

In fact, Apple had to create its own version of a piece of BlackBerry's infrastructure -- a proprietary notification service -- to make push messaging work in iPhone 2.0, Yager says.

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Another issue: The BlackBerry integrates with all three major e-mail platforms: Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Notes, and Novell Groupwise, as well as the Internet-standard POP mail protocol (but not the standard IMAP protocol). The iPhone ties directly into only Exchange, in addition to supporting both POP and IMAP for basic e-mail support on a variety of e-mail platforms. That's because the BlackBerry was designed from the outset to connect to corporate e-mail accounts, whereas iPhone was aimed at the consumer and is now being adapted for business. (IBM has announced its intent to make a native Notes client for the iPhone, but it's not clear when that might ship. Novell has announced no plans.)

The BlackBerry's platform support is "a big issue for customers who want to access their enterprise e-mail," says Jan Dawson, an Ovum analyst. But he suspects this disadvantage will be transitory: "The iPhone's first step was [support for] Exchange, because it's the most used platform. I wouldn't be surprised if Apple added compatibility with Lotus and other e-mail platforms down the line."

Another advantage for BlackBerry users is that they can have multiple applications running simultaneously. A business user can talk on the phone, chat in two IM sessions, and chart a location on TeleNav via a button that scrolls through applications. By contrast, iPhone apps suspend or stop when you switch from one to the other, Yager notes. For example, e-mail downloading stops while you browse the Web. That's not a big deal for when you're making a call or writing an e-mail and need to quickly switch to a browser, your contacts, or Google Maps to look something else, then switch back to your call or e-mail. But it can be an issue for real-time apps such as chat, video, and streaming media.

Browser wars 2.0: Going mobile?

Given these challenges, Apple no doubt hopes the mobile turf war shifts to the browser. Nearly everyone drools over the iPhone's supercool browser. Even Yager envies the iPhone's ability to render gorgeous Web pages, soon to fly over a 3G network. "When Apple goes 3G, it'll just stomp BlackBerry for users looking for a portable Internet terminal," he says.

That's because the BlackBerry's browser is barely tolerable -- it doesn't support standard HTML and desktop browser technologies. And RIM likely won't be able to create a better one any time soon. RIM placed its bet on Java, and BlackBerry's JavaScript interpreter runs like a dog. Given all the JavaScript on most Web pages, the BlackBerry takes too long to open a single page. And its Web screen is tiny, making it hard to read and navigate the sites it can display. The same page on an iPhone snaps up on a big, beautiful screen. (A recently available free service, called Opera Mini, runs a responsive browser on BlackBerry and other Web-impaired handhelds.)

But just how important is Web browsing to business users?

Gartner's Dulaney sees a real opportunity for the iPhone to make inroads into businesses thanks to its rich browser. While many business users will continue to choose BlackBerry for its resilient messaging, a significant minority will probably be driven to the iPhone's browser.

Mobile browsing among business users won't just be about surfing ESPN for the latest sports scores. And it'll hardly be about Google either. "It'll be more 'reactive browsing' on handhelds," Dulaney says. "Let's say you get a message from your bank that your balance has fallen below [a certain amount]. You launch a browser, go to the bank site, and move money over. What you probably won't do is hunt around for things because, even with the iPhone, it's still going to be painful."

The mobile browser may become more important over time, as Web-based software applications such as Salesforce.com's CRM continue to ride the cloud computing wave. "A [mobile] Web browser that accesses that kind of information is important," Dawson says. "But browsing is still very much secondary to messaging for the corporate user."

Dulaney and Yager contend that the iPhone's Web browser won't be the ultimate game-changer. Neither believes that the mobile browser will be the interface for a business user's most critical applications. It's difficult to imagine, for instance, working with e-mail attachments such as Office docs, PDFs, WAV audio files, and others on a mobile screen, even though the iPhone supports most of these for viewing.

"The BlackBerry is not in trouble," Yager says. "It has its disadvantages, and the browser is chief among them ... but the world would have to change for business users to use the [mobile] browser as the primary means to access their applications and data."