There's no denying that Google's Android operating system is a striking success. Consumer and business users are buying more than 200,000 Android-based mobile phones and other devices daily, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who made the announcement Wednesday at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, California.
The mobile OS's rapid growth, as well as the sheer volume of Android handsets on the market, poses a serious threat to Research In Motion's BlackBerry platform. While RIM leads the U.S. smartphone market with an impressive market share of more than 40 percent, Android and the Apple iPhone are steadily gaining ground.
RIM's strength has long been in the enterprise market, which craves the sophisticated security, data management, and corporate e-mail and calendar features that BlackBerry does so well. The new BlackBerry 6 operating system and Torch 9800 smartphone play to RIM's strengths, while adding trendy end-user features such as social-networking feeds and a higher-resolution (5-megapixel) camera.
With its competitors gaining ground, is BlackBerry still the best choice for the enterprise? Other mobile platforms, including Android, iPhone, and soon Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, are adding more business-friendly features, including the ability to secure corporate data by remotely wiping lost or stolen devices. But according to Forrester Research analyst Andrew Jaquith, Blackberry, which uses encrypted using industry-standard algorithms to encrypt all of its communications, remains the "gold standard" of secure devices for business.
RIM makes a similar argument: Nobody touches our enterprise tools. Tom Goguen, RIM's vice president of product management, says that managing mobile phones in the enterprise is lot like managing desktop computers. "Having one PC (is easy), one person can keep track of it," he says. "But when you have a thousand or ten thousand of them, there's some work you've got to do."
He points out that upcoming versions of the BlackBerry 6 and BlackBerry 5 operating systems will have more features designed to keep personal and corporate data separate--tools that can stop distracted (or clueless) employees from inadvertently releasing sensitive business data into the wild.
BlackBerry excels at "preventing data leakage from the device," Goguen adds. "If I get e-mail from my company, and another e-mail from my personal Yahoo account, the device will prevent me from copying and pasting information from the company e-mail into my Yahoo e-mail."
Similarly, BlackBerry can stop an employee who receives a file attachment from a company mail account from forwarding the attachment to a personal (e.g., Gmail) account.
The platform segregates mobile apps too. "An app that gets pushed to me from my company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server can be regarded as a trusted app--it can edit and use data I receive from the company," says Goguen. "But an app that I download from, say, the BlackBerry App World will be regarded as a personal app and won't be able to access corporate information."
BlackBerry's enterprise tools are indeed powerful, but RIM's weakest link may be its hardware design. Despite many refinements, including the Torch's improved browser and a slide-out keyboard, the phone's appearance--particularly its 3.2-inch 360-by-480 display-- seems a tad out of date in an era of relatively big-screen handsets such as the HTC EVO 4G and Motorola Droid X.
RIM has the delicate task of try to please its large installed base--and BlackBerry devotees do love their phone's physical keyboard--while expanding (or at least preserving) market share. It will, however, have to expand its selection of smartphones--a daunting task in an industry where numerous competitors are churning out innovative Android devices at a maddening pace.