Could RIM Benefit From Open Source BlackBerry?

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Research In Motion often fields the question of whether it might follow Symbian's lead by making the BlackBerry OS open source. While there's nothing to suggest such a move is in the cards, RIM executives have acknowledged that this could make sense in certain types of scenarios, and BlackBerry developers are intrigued by the options this would afford them.

In May, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie told ZDNet Asia it could make sense for RIM to move some parts of the BlackBerry application set to open source. Last October, Cassidy Gentle, a senior RIM software developer, told EE Times that RIM has an open-source management team that's investigating open-source opportunities.

"I would expect some of our Eclipse or Mobile Tools for Java could be made available on an open-source basis, but as for our APIs or other software -- that's a pretty big leap," Gentle told EE Times.

RIM has adhered to Java mobile standards since 2002, and BlackBerry developers have the option of working with BlackBerry-focused APIs or with the Connected Limited Device Configuration (CLDC) and Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP). Some RIM partners believe open-source development options would open up interesting opportunities.

For example, developers would benefit from being able to make changes to the RIM APIs to suit their needs, enabling them to work faster by obviating the need to create workarounds and customized components, according to Steve Beauregard, president of Santa Monica, Calif.-based mobility solution provider Regard Solutions.

BlackBerry developers have long clamored for the ability to send PIN messages from a server-side application, and that's another option that could be possible if RIM were to embrace elements of open source, Beauregard said.

"Since the early days of BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry communication, the only way to send PIN messages to BlackBerry devices has been through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server," said Beauregard. "Over the years, companies have asked RIM to incorporate that capability into applications, but RIM hasn't done so, and workarounds haven't worked."

Exposure to RIM's internal technical architecture would obviously give developers a better understanding of how the BlackBerry solution works. But the proprietary nature of the BlackBerry OS is the single most important reason behind RIM's success in the corporate world, and some partners feel open source would erode some of this armor.

According to Dan Croft, president and CEO of Mission Critical Wireless, a solution provider in Lincolnshire, Ill., an open-source version of BlackBerry wouldn't be particularly attractive from an enterprise IT point of view.

"For enterprises, the single biggest issue is device management -- being able to control what goes on with that device when it's miles away from data center. No one gives you that control like BlackBerry," Croft said. "Open source sounds like a good idea to many people, but for IT managers, it would give up some of RIM's greatest strengths."

According to recent figures from Strategy Analytics, the BlackBerry accounted for 37 percent of the market for U.S. businesses of all sizes, compared to 26 percent for Windows Mobile. The fact that BlackBerry continues to roll out compelling new devices like the BlackBerry Tour 9360, a new 3G smartphone that promises connectivity around the world, suggests that it will continue to dominate the U.S. smartphone business.

Unless RIM's success suddenly stalls and the company enters a tailspin, Beauregard said he doesn't expect to see the company follow the Symbian lead. "The only way I see it changing is if they begin to be marginalized by other platforms and need to throw a 'Hail Mary,'" he said.

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