TECHNO SAVVY: Stay in touch

A handheld device that automatically gets your e-mail and synchronises with your desktop has cornered the market for professionals who want to stay in touch

Research In Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry device is becoming the handheld of choice for professionals on the move. Its unique selling point is its ability to automatically update users with new e-mail and diary changes by using always-on high-speed GPRS (general packet radio service) wireless networks — but other devices will also offer BlackBerry facilities.

The BlackBerry’s ease of use was recently demonstrated when T-Mobile gave 5,000 to delegates at the IBM PartnerWorld conference in Las Vegas earlier this month. Delegates automatically received schedule updates and could make calls and send texts and e-mails.

Founded in 1984, RIM began selling a pager-sized BlackBerry in 1999. Many product updates later, the device is now also a mobile phone and much more of a personal digital assistant with a miniature Qwerty keypad. Distribution has also mushroomed through deals with 50 telecoms operators in 30 countries. RIM now provides the BlackBerry platform to more than 17,000 companies.

Law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer started testing BlackBerrys six months ago and is now rolling out the colour screen 7230 to around 1,200 partners and associates across Europe, including up to 800 staff in the UK.

It is now seeking to extend the platform through what it calls the BlackBerry Connect licencing programme, which allows other manufacturers to connect their handsets to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. It has also launched BlackBerry Web Client services, which allows individuals and small businesses to use BlackBerrys without the server software.

BlackBerry Connect supports Palm OS, Symbian OS and Windows Mobile. Handset partners include HTC, Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson. Sony Ericsson recently announced that its P900 smartphone will support email from the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, following a similar announcement from O2 regarding its Microsoft-based XDA.

Chris Jones, senior analyst at Canalys, says the attraction of the BlackBerry is its

ease of use. “The key is its simplicity, which is often not the case when IT managers try to

link other devices to office e-mail systems. RIM will now have to respond to a changing market by providing more wireless connectivity such as Bluetooth.”

But Rick Costanzo, European vice president at RIM, says that BlackBerry is no longer just a device favoured by professionals. “Since we launched a web client and made the enterprise server more open for developers, it is increasingly being used to support field service engineers and sales people.” Costanzo says BlackBerry sales have risen sharply because of the combined effects of easier roaming on GPRS data networks and increased marketing from carriers.

He says that typical costs begin at Pounds Sterling 160 for the BlackBerry and Pounds Sterling 25 in monthly usage charges.