Ovum comment: RIM turns MS

Research In Motion (RIM) has introduced Virtual BlackBerry 1.0 for Windows Mobile 5.0 and 6.0.

The software consists of a Java ME-virtual machine with BlackBerry extensions, user experience and applications that effectively emulate the entire look and feel of RIM's own devices, albeit making use of the host device's data input methods. The whole stack works as an application on the host device, without interfering with the rest of the Windows Mobile experience. Virtual BlackBerry also provides a more-or-less-complete set of RIM device APIs for developers and a full set of BlackBerry security policies.

RIM said Virtual BlackBerry is not intended to replace BlackBerry Connect, RIM's existing program for OEM's to connect their devices to BlackBerry services using those devices' native applications and UI. In addition to Microsoft, RIM expects support for Garnet OS (formerly Palm OS), Symbian and proprietary OSs to follow in subsequent versions. How Virtual BlackBerry is to be distributed and priced has not yet been decided although it should reach the market in the autumn of 2007.

Ovum senior analyst and service manager Tony Cripps comments:

At first glance, this looks like a strange decision by RIM - the BlackBerry device experience is beginning to look outdated in graphical richness and intuitiveness compared with many of its rivals (although that experience remains quite usable in many contexts).

However, there is also considerable logic to the move. BlackBerry Connect, while now relatively popular in terms of industry support - 80-plus carriers and 50-plus devices from Motorola, Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson offer the technology - has suffered somewhat in its efforts to appeal to IT managers. Although this could be said to be good for RIM's own device sales the company nonetheless needs to attract third-party devices into the equation in order to boost server sales.

Different release times and slow certification among OEMs for new capabilities in BlackBerry Connect has led to feature fragmentation and a failure to implement the full range of around 300 security policies available in the full BlackBerry product. This has conflicted with an increasing need of IT departments to support both Windows Mobile devices (increasingly popular in the enterprise) and BlackBerry applications with their full range of options.

Virtual BlackBerry is designed to bypass such objections, abstracting BlackBerry functionality away from the host device platform while enabling native applications to run unaffected. It should therefore be attractive to IT managers, although with BlackBerry Connect already fairly well established, Virtual BlackBerry might prove a difficult concept to market to operators.

We would encourage RIM to add Symbian support sooner rather than later, especially given Nokia and Sony Ericsson's greater efforts to deliver highly-specced business devices based on Symbian OS. Without it, Virtual BlackBerry's chances of success compared with BlackBerry Connect seem unnecessarily compromised.

In addition, we wonder whether users of Virtual BlackBerry will enjoy the slightly retro-feel of the BlackBerry UI. However, the ability to use native Windows Mobile applications, such as web browsers (which do not adapt well to RIM's Java-based platform - BlackBerry Browser is a proxy-based system where page rendering is done in the network), alongside BlackBerry applications, provides some compensation.

Tony Cripps is a senior analyst and service manager of Ovum's wireless software advisory service.