The Top 25 Newsmakers of 2006 – RIM Number 4: RIM Jim Balsillie

Jim Balsillie doesn’t mince words when describing his favourite sport.

“There is only one great game in this world, and that’s called hockey,” said the chairman and co-CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Inc. “I love playing hockey.”

Temporarily, Balsillie may be better known for his love of shinny than for the BlackBerry wireless handhelds his company makes now that he has agreed to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins for a rumoured US$175 million.

A Peterborough, Ont. native who has a master of business administration from Harvard, he has been with RIM since 1992. He coaches his son’s basketball team and participates in triathlons, but seems a little more enthusiastic about hockey.

Balsillie, however, says his purchase of the Pittsburgh Penguins is separate from his company’s activity.

Despite press coverage over the Penguins deal and the settlment of RIM’s patent dispute with NTP, Balsillie said the biggest breakthrough for RIM this year was the introduction of the Pearl.

Unveiled in September, it’s a half-inch-thick cellphone and wireless e-mail device with the company’s SureType QWERTY keyboard technology.

In addition to its messaging features and voice-activated dialing, it also has a MicroSD card for storing music, videos and photos, and a 1.3 megapixel digital camera.

“They had sworn they wouldn’t put a digital camera on their products for a long time,” said Michelle Warren, senior IT industry analyst with Partner Research Corp. “With the introduction of that digital camera, it does lend the Pearl to be more of a consumer device.”

She added the camera can be used for business purposes as well as by small businesses or employees who have a “fun, trendy side.”

Misgivings

But another industry analyst has misgivings about RIM’s decision to add consumer features.

Bill Hughes, principal analyst for In-Stat, said many corporate IT departments steer clear of handheld devices with cameras and other multimedia features.

“I’m not too much of a fan of the Pearl,” Hughes said. “RIM’s strength is clearly in the business market, and the Pearl is an attempt to strengthen itself in the consumer channel. While that’s a large market, it’s getting away from their traditional strength, and all that can do is dilute their positioning.”

But Balsillie said consumers won’t be the only Pearl buyers.

“We’ve seen a lot of business uptake on it, but we’ve seen a fair bit of non-business uptake,” he said. “We’re really targeting the people who are looking for the BlackBerry experience, and if they happen to be consumers, great.

“What we’re really trying to do is create a new segment.”

He believes both the consumer and business markets

for wireless services present plenty of opportunity for integrators and independent software vendors.

“Gosh, there’s over 1,000 lifestyle applications for BlackBerry, and currently on the enterprise side we have over 500 ISVs,” Balsillie said.

He added there are opportunities for third-party developers to make customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning applications to work on mobile devices.

“There’s a lot of stuff on disaster recovery and continuity of operations.”

Another opportunity for third-party developers is in applications targeting specific verticals, such as health care.

Impressed ISV

Evanston, Ill.-based PEPID LLC, for example, announced a suite of mobile health care applications specifically targeting doctors, nurses, pharmacists and emergency medical teams.

“The BlackBerry is as an impressive device to develop on,” said Ed Reynolds, PEPID’s vice-president of technology.

Reynolds said the BlackBerry’s Java technology lets developers create applications that are easy to control.

PEPID’s software gives health care workers access to databases that help them make decisions – such as determining whether a certain drug is likely to cause a harmful reaction.

Hughes said the BlackBerry, and other wireless devices, are “a good way for software vendors to differentiate their service, to mobilize their applications.”

But he added the legal dispute with NTP – which RIM agreed to settle with a US$612.5 million payout – may have a lasting effect on the company.

At one point, NTP had filed a request for an injunction that would have forced RIM to shut down its service in the U.S.

“The risk of the e-mail shutdown earlier this year because of the patent suit has taken away some of the luster, in addition to costing them a lot of money, because many people realized there are other options out here and that awareness isn’t good,” Hughes said.

“Many of the users said, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll try this other device.’”

Balsillie argues RIM still has advantages over other handheld units on the market.

“I don’t think it hurt us in any substantial way,” he said.

“We had 45,000 servers out there and none of them were decommissioned.

“People tried to make hay of it, but it didn’t work.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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