Palm’s future in the smartphone market remains uncertain, but its technology could prove valuable to Research in Motion, makers of the popular BlackBerry smartphones – especially as Research in Motion (RIM) continues its consumer push.

Reading David Coursey’s InfoWorld post “Palm is doomed; let the good-byes begin”, I couldn’t help but wonder “what next for Palm?” As Coursey and the Wall Street Journal mention, Palm has released strong products since re-launching on the WebOS platform and enjoys excellent carrier support. Yet, this hasn’t helped Palm’s share grow:

“In the nicest way possible, it (the Wall Street Journal) says Palm, with a mere 0.7 percent of the smartphone market, compared to 14.4 percent for Apple and 20 percent for RIM, simply can’t catch up.”

Being acquired by RIM is definitely one answer to the “what next for Palm” question. There is however the slight issue of Palm’s $1 billion market cap putting a serious dent in RIM’s $1.3 billion cash and near cash position. However, RIM doesn’t have any debt, so there’s room to finance the acquisition. RIM’s stock, while not priced where it’s used to being, remains on most investor’s tech stock short list, and could help fund the acquisition. For our purposes let’s assume RIM could close the deal.

The larger question is “Why would RIM want to acquire Palm?”

The 0.7 percent market share of Palm isn’t reason enough to acquire Palm. RIM could get its share of that 0.7 percent as Palm users look for future devices from Apple, RIM or Android phone manufacturers.

One reason to acquire Palm would be to leverage Palm’s open source experience. I’ve argued that RIM could benefit from using open source more effectively in its business. Palm would jumpstart this effort.

The more compelling reason to acquire Palm would be Palm’s WebOS platform. The BlackBerry platform, built on the aging BlackBerry OS, is in serious need of a refresh. This is less the case for enterprise BlackBerry users, many of whom couldn’t function without the email and messaging capabilities that the BlackBerry excels at. The user interface and rich interactivity of BlackBerry applications are secondary to the mail and messaging requirements. This will change over time as more businesses expose enterprise applications to mobile devices. For instance, the fact that a company’s CRM application is more usable on an iPhone or Android versus a BlackBerry may well entice an enterprise user to migrate off their BlackBerry. A revamped OS would resonate a lot more with younger consumers deciding between an iPhone or a BlackBerry Curve. The fact that one’s friends are on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is reason enough to leave behind 100,000 plus iPhone apps for the ability to communicate with tens or hundreds of ones (closest?) friends on BBM. BBM is an instant messaging platform available to BlackBerry device users. Giving these consumers users a richer, more fun, user experience would go a long way towards keeping these BlackBerry users happy in the face of iPhone toting friends.

The user experience would be vastly different between a WebOS-based BlackBerry and a BlackBerry OS-based BlackBerry. But this would be a point in time statement and one that retains and attracts both enterprise and consumer users. For a consumer the WebOS-based BlackBerry lineup, especially if new RIM designed devices are released in addition to the existing Palm devices, would be a much more compelling user experience than what’s available through the current BlackBerry OS-delivered user interface. For the enterprise user, the addition of a WebOS-based BlackBerry line, along with RIM’s commitment to bring the user experience to all BlackBerry’s would be a reason to remain a BlackBerry user until the new interface arrives on BlackBerry’s enterprise-targeted product line. Waiting for coveted features on a product or platform you’ve already invested time and money in is not uncommon in the IT market. For instance, as terrible as the BlackBerry browser is, many BlackBerry users are waiting at the edge of their seats for a new WebKit-based browser rather than jumping ship to an iPhone or Android device.  Early iPhone users lacking copy and paste capabilities are another example.

There’s also an issue of existing BlackBerry applications running on WebOS-based devices. Maybe a stripped down BlackBerry OS could run in a virtual machine on the mobile device? I’m sure RIM’s engineers could come up with some creative solutions.

As a BlackBerry user, I’d love to get the WebOS user experience in addition to the email and messaging capabilities of a BlackBerry.

Would you?

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

Successful open source vendors utilize business models that build a large user base through free software and monetize the adoption through some other product or service offering. In dated business terminology the free offering is considered a loss leader whose business case is supported by other offerings in the portfolio.

I’ve previously written that RIM needs to more effectively utilize open source software in its business practices. Well, RIM just demonstrated that they’re learning from successful open source vendors.

RIM introduced the free BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express (BESX), which offers wireless synchronization of BlackBerry smartphones with Microsoft Exchange or Microsoft Windows Small Business Server. While BESX is targeted at SMB customers, RIM still offers BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) as a priced enterprise grade product with additional enterprise-friendly features.

It’s interesting to not that BESX isn’t necessarily being used to build a user base that RIM will later monetize with BES. Rather, BESX is an attempt to build a user base that can be monetized through the sale of BlackBerry devices and ongoing monthly fees. This becomes vividly clear when one considers RIM’s revenue sources.

The “Device” category, not surprisingly, represents revenue from selling new smartphones. The “Service” category represents the monthly fee that RIM receives from carriers for every active BlackBerry device on the carrier’s network. The “Software” category represents revenue from the sale of packaged software such as BES.

While the “Software” category represented over $250 million in fiscal 2009 revenue, a respectable sum by most measures, it represents 2 percent of RIM’s revenue. By making BESX free, RIM hopes to make it more cost effective for small businesses to promote the use of Blackberry devices by their employees. As this occurs, RIM will capture “Device” and ongoing “Service” revenue.

Build adoption with free software and monetize adoption elsewhere in the offering portfolio. Seems like a very smart decision by RIM.

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

Mozilla announced the availability of a mobile Firefox browser for Nokia smartphones built off the Maemo platform. Reading this news I began to wonder if Firefox has as bright a future on smartphones as it does on PCs, laptops and Netbooks. I’m a happy Firefox user on my PC and sometimes on my Mac, but browser market dynamics don’t seem to be as advanced on mobile devices as they are on traditional PCs today. Users tend to use the native smartphone browser an order of magnitude more than they use the native browser on a PC, laptop or Netbook. If this trend continues, the leading mobile browser will be the browser shipped natively on the leading smartphone, with little room for a third party browser to assert itself as a challenger or leader.

Let’s take a quick look at the native browsers on the leading smartphone platforms. Symbian, the number 1 smartphone operating system by market share builds its own browser. The Blackberry, iPhone, Android and Palm WebOS, the number 2, 3, 5 and 6 smartphone operating systems by market share respectively, all deliver native mobile browsers based on Webkit. Well, Blackberry doesn’t yet, but RIM acquired a company that will help get RIM on the Webkit bandwagon in 2010. Webkit is the competing browser rendering engine to Mozilla’s Gecko engine at the heart of Firefox. The number 4 smartphone operating system, Windows Mobile, not surprisingly ships a mobile IE browser.

Firefox is being shipped as the native browser on two of Nokia’s high end N-series smartphones built off the Maemo platform. But the rest of Nokia’s smartphones are built off the Symbian platform. Additionally, Nokia’s success in the smartphone market is not a fait accompli as the iPhone, Blackberry and Android are viewed to be growing at Nokia & Symbian’s expense.

Mobile Firefox clearly faces an uphill battle for inclusion as the native browser on leading smartphones. However, I wouldn’t write Firefox off in the smartphone arena just yet. As smartphones become more critical to the daily lives of mainstream users, synchronizing between computing devices will become complex and critical. Synchronizing the browsing experience between a traditional PC at work or at home with your smartphone’s browser could become the ‘killer app’ that pulls mobile Firefox onto smartphones. The Weave Sync feature in Firefox addresses just this scenario:

“Sync your Firefox tabs, history, bookmarks and passwords between your desktop and mobile device for a seamless browsing experience”

As I write this I have 28 tabs open in Firefox. Some of the tabs are only open until I find the time to read them. Other tabs contain information that I’ll need to act on when I’m out shopping or out with friends. Today, if I want the information available on my Blackberry I have to email myself the URL or copy and paste information from a webpage into an email to myself. I’d love for my PC browser tabs to be synchronized and available on my Blackberry when I’m out and about. I want this feature so much that I’ll even go as far as adding a third party browser to my Blackberry, something I haven’t bothered to do since becoming a Blackberry user 2 year ago.

It seems unthinkable that Firefox’s growth and popularity on traditional PCs would not somehow translate into a competitive differentiator on smartphones. While Firefox lacks the smartphone distribution channel that Webkit enjoys, Firefox can differentiate in offering a seamless browsing experience across PC and mobile devices.

What do you think about mobile Firefox’s prospects?

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

I’ve blogged about building native mobile device applications using a Web technology-based framework such as PhoneGap from Nitobi in the past. When I first wrote about the open source PhoneGap project in March 2009 I concluded: “If I worked at RIM, I’d take a trip out to Vancouver to talk to the Nitobi dudes. This framework is exactly what RIM needs to counter the trend of developers targeting the iPhone/iPod as the premier environment for mobile device applications”.

Fast forward seven months and RIM announces a beta of the BlackBerry Widget SDK that:

“allows web developers to package up their web assets into BlackBerry Widgets (small, discrete, standalone web applications that use HTML, CSS and JavaScript). A BlackBerry Widget looks, behaves and has the same security mechanisms as a native BlackBerry application. BlackBerry Widgets can be installed on a BlackBerry smartphone like any native application and can be extended to use device-specific information and data using the BlackBerry Widget APIs.”

Wow, sounds like an enhanced PhoneGap tuned for BlackBerry applications. With fingers crossed I pinged Andre & Dave to ask if RIM was using PhoneGap for this SDK. I’d scoured the BlackBerry Widget SDK website and knew the answer before Dave and Andre replied “nope”.

This was absolutely a missed opportunity for RIM to compete versus Apple, Palm and others using open source. No, I’m not going to suggest that RIM open source the BlackBerry Enterprise Server; that would be silly. Rather, I believe RIM could have saved R&D costs, increased the value of its BlackBerry platform and influenced developers building for the iPhone if RIM had built the Widget SDK on top of the open source project like PhoneGap.

RIM should be utilizing R&D investments more effectively by leveraging exiting open source projects. RIM could have built this SDK for a lower investment by staring with PhoneGap, or another equivalent open source framework. Of course there might have been a feature gap between what PhoneGap offers and what RIM wanted to deliver in version 1.0. However, assigning RIM developers to the PhoneGap project to add these features whilst leveraging all the other APIs in PhoneGap would have saved RIM the work of reinventing the wheel for those other APIs.

RIM would have also benefited from new features added by the PhoneGap community. A PhoneGap community member who loves his BlackBerry and wants to “scratch an itch” could contribute a PhoneGap feature that other BlackBerry developers would find extremely useful.

Finally, RIM would be contributing to a framework that developers are already using to develop iPhone applications. RIM needs to figure out a way to entice developers to build BlackBerry applications before iPhone applications. However, RIM should also be working to get developers to port their iPhone apps to the BlackBerry platform. As a PhoneGap contributor, RIM could offer a simple and painless porting option for existing and new PhoneGap-based iPhone applications.

I could come up with additional benefits for RIM, but these three are big enough for RIM to reconsider its strategy for delivering the Widget SDK. RIM could yet contribute all or part of their Widget SDK to an established mobile framework open source community and build its Widget SDK product from the resulting open source community code.

I suggest this strategy because I’ve witnessed IBM using it with great success. In the WebSphere division, we contribute to countless open source projects, including the Apache HTTPD, Dojo Toolkit and Eclipse Equinox projects. We then utilize code from these projects with IBM enhancements inside of WebSphere Application Server. This strategy allows us to, with less, do more.

I hope friends at RIM can learn a lesson from IBM’s use of open source for competitive differentiation. With Dion & Ben at Palm, you can bet that Palm is thinking about using open source more effectively within its strategy.

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

I stumbled upon PhoneGap while exploring twitter this weekend.  PhoneGap is a device independent framework that allows web developers to take advantage of native features (e.g. GPS, accelerometer, sound, vibration) of the iPhone, Android-based devices, and Blackberry devices simply by using JavaScript.  The framework allows web developers to write cross-device applications without having to learn new languages, such as Objective C or Java.

PhoneGap is the brainchild of folks over at Nitobi, a Canadian software firm known for its “Complete UI” platform for building Ajax-powered Web user interfaces.  PhoneGap is an open source project licensed under the MIT license.  The project is looking for help to help mature PhoneGap quickly.

If I worked at RIM, I’d take a trip out to Vancouver to talk to the Nitobi dudes.  This framework is exactly what RIM needs to counter the trend of developers targeting the iPhone/iPod as the premier environment for mobile device applications.  RIM has the brand and market share to persuade developers that writing once and targeting three key mobile platforms is the best use of a mobile developer’s effort. RIM would need to adopt WebKit as the rendering engine for their browser, but that is going to happen anyway ;-)