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Jim Balsillie is missing. The chairman and co-CEO of mobile communications company Research in Motion Ltd. is on the road and supposed to call into the home office for a press briefing. The appointed time for the call has come and the phone is silent.
But this isn't a problem for a company as (un)wired as RIM. A PR manager whips out her BlackBerry wireless E-mail device and thumb-punches a quick message into the tiny keyboard, sending a reminder and the proper call-in number directly to Balsillie's BlackBerry. Moments later, the phone rings, and the briefing proceeds.
This devotion to the company's flagship product is repeatedly demonstrated over the course of the day. A meeting runs late, so participants E-mail co-workers to warn that they're behind schedule. A group arrives at RIM's manufacturing plant for a tour, and the guide isn't in the lobby, so a manager messages him. The guide arrives moments later.
RIM employees' use of the BlackBerry is impressive, but what's really winning over potential customers is the vendor's strategy of designing products that can be centrally managed.
The BlackBerry 6710, due this fall, will come with a phone.
The new software lets IT managers remotely configure the devices, pushing new applications and rules via a wireless connection. Users no longer have to bring their BlackBerrys into the shop to get a software upgrade. Managers can set security policies for different groups, limiting access to sensitive data and forcing users to use passwords.
Should a user lose his BlackBerry, all its data can be remotely wiped out. "That's going to make it a winner," says analyst Richard Piotrowski at SWS Securities Inc.
RIM has distinguished itself by paying close attention to IT departments, Piotrowski says. Customers agree.
"They've done a really great job in improving their software so that the administration is much easier," says Mary Odson, CIO at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, an international law firm that has deployed more than 850 BlackBerrys to its attorneys.
Several new BlackBerry devices, including the 6710, which features a built-in cell phone, are due this fall and will be able to take full advantage of the new software.The next step in RIM's strategy is to give companies new ways to use BlackBerrys. The newest versions of the handheld all feature access to next-generation digital cellular networks as well as support for Java-based programs, which should give application developers broad freedom in developing custom tools.
But the key to RIM's strategy seems to be providing options and not forcing things on IT managers.
"It really takes time for customers and IT departments to figure out how to use this stuff," Balsillie says. "But over time, people get into it and take the device into places that are unpredictable."