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Blackberries are not for the lonely suit

27/7/09

Meeting a friend for coffee turned into collecting her daughter from school. In the playground among a gaggle of women one was tapping away on a Bold 9000. I love this, it reminds me real people with real jobs use things we discuss earnestly in boardrooms and conferences. I asked “Do you like your Blackberry?”. “Yes”, she said, “my husband had been on at me for ages to get one but I've only just given in.“. Not the answer I expected so I pushed a little deeper “So it's not a work phone”. “Oh no she said, I don't work”.

This was the consumer segment Disney had in mind with its failed US MVNO. “Mom as CEO”. Mother runs the family, from ballet to baseball, Spanish to supper.

It didn't work for Disney, but does seem to be working for Blackberry and it's pretty much unintended. Blackberry is aimed not just at business people but at business people with IT departments. If you've gone from working for a large company to a small one, or even for yourself you are likely to find things you took for granted just don't happen.

The main one is the switch from BES to BIS. You might expect if you buy a Blackberry from a carrier and pay a monthly charge for “Blackberry service” you'd get the full fat version. Email on your office PC synced with your Blackberry. That the “Blackberry service” provides you with an enterprise server so mails sent from the Blackberry would be in your PC outbox, you could set “out of office” when you were out of the office and if you lost your Blackberry delete your data or lock it remotely.

All of these things are part of what makes a Blackberry special, but lightweight BIS doesn't do any of those. All it does is read the same online mail as your PC.

Plenty of other things do that. It lets the iPhone close the gap on the mail experience. It means Windows Mobile is almost as good and Android integration better. Blackberry is still the best mail device but for the lone businessman Gmail the best mail service.

One of the most commonly asked questions on internet forums seems to be “Blackberry or iPhone”, or “I've got a Blackberry, but it's time to upgrade what next?”.

It's tricky. Blackberry is still the best when it comes to mail. Or text, or IM, the keyboard and trackball are well resolved. Things like intelligent insertion of full stop and @ in email addresses, long presses for capitalisation and a well thought out UI make it the best device for typing on, although I've stopped short of writing one of these columns on one. Blackberrys however seem to have RF problems when they are new models, GPS is very slow to fix, they don't have an FM radio, music player functions are limited and the camera weak. There is nothing like Sony Ericsson's face or smile recognition.

The iPhone keypad takes a lot of getting used to. Of course the zealots put the effort in but a touch screen is never going to rival 102 real buttons. Beyond that the iPhone is better at pretty much everything else. Not least because there are a zillion apps which means, if you can find it, there is something to do what you want, and while you are looking you'll have downloaded a dozen things which felt like a good idea at the time.

Windows Mobile devices are getting better since Microsoft stopped being precious about the UI. HTC have pretty graphics but not enough horsepower to drive them. I look forward to having a proper play with the 1GHz Toshiba, but it's still, well, Windows Mobile.

The Nokia N97 is the device the fans of the Psion 5mx have been waiting for. With a proper keyboard and Activesync it might be the best small enterprise option.

The space is very crowded and Blackberry needs to go some to distance itself from its rivals.

In the crazy financial markets world doing well means the next quarter you have to do better or else everyone is disappointed and downgrades you. Blackberry as the most successful device in the US will feel the pain if they only do OK.

There is a growing youth market. Blackberry messaging is the cool way to communicate. If as a teen you don't have it you miss out on the school gossip and parties. Your PIN is your passport to a social life. And you don't get a Pin unless you have a Blackberry. Cross IM platforms like Trillian or Palringo can't talk to Blackberry Messenger. But there is a very real danger Blackberry will get complacent about the importance of this. These are teens and they are the most fickle of markets. Today's Blackberry messanger is tomorrow's ICQ.

Blackberry is working on a netbook, but then who isn't? It makes sense for anyone with a good consumer base, a growing apps store and superb messaging to go for something a bit more diverse. It's the step Psion made with the original Netbook and the Series 7 and Palm got cold feet on with the Folio. But for the netbook to work outside the corporate market they really need to solve the BES problem.

Then the bell rang and the kids streamed out. As they bluetoothed music and ringtones to each other I looked at what they had. Lots of iPods, a few iPhones, quite a lot of pre-pay specials: Nokia 6110 and Sony Ericsson T280s, but what surprised me at this posh girls school was number of Blackberry Flip Pearls. A phone I'd dismissed as a bit of a flop. It seems the combination of colour, looks and PIN are what found favour. And the kids don't care about BES. Facebook is their idea of a server based app, and the Blackberry facebook app is excellent.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com  you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here. Follow me on Twitter here.

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