Research in Motion has begun to flex its muscles in the wake of the legal settlement with NTP, and is entering the market for fixed-mobile convergence and collaboration technologies with the acquisition of Ascendent Systems.
The Canadian push email developer has only just put the four-year patent infringement battle with NTP behind it with a $613 million out-of-court payment to its US fellow litigant, but has already begun to move on its plan to broaden its offerings beyond personal information management (PIM).
The Ontario-based vendor can legitimately claim to have already gone some way on that path with its Mobile Data System technology, which is designed to enable corporate customers to ‘mobilize’ enterprise apps such as salesforce or fleet management, CRM, and SAP. Last year RIM was already claiming 60% of companies using its BlackBerry services were doing so for more than PIM (push email, task, and calendaring functions).
However, with the acquisition of California-based Ascendent, that process potentially goes a lot further. Privately held Ascendent develops products in the fashionable areas of fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) and collaboration. The product highlighted by Nasdaq- and Toronto-listed RIM in announcing the acquisition, the value of which was not disclosed, was Ascendent’s Voice Mobility Suite, which is in essence an enterprise FMC platform.
Fixed-mobile convergence can be delivered in a variety of ways. Unlicensed mobile access (UMA) is a technology for the encapsulation of cellular traffic (at the moment, restricted to GSM 2G signals) over a fixed network via a specially adapted WiFi access point. Equipment vendors tend to market it more to fixed-line operators that either don’t have mobile operations and can therefore get some of the traffic they’ve lost to mobile competitors back onto their networks, or ones that have both types of service, but want to offer their customers the cost reductions UMA can bring as a means of making them more faithful to their brand.
IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) is a more ambitious undertaking, involving the implementation of an end-to-end IP network with all the necessary smarts in its core to handle mobile traffic as fixed and charge for it accordingly. It is an approach that is marketed to mobile operators who are already migrating to an all-IP 3G network and want to snatch some business from fixed-line carriers by offering the convergence of fixed and mobile with fixed-line pricing wherever possible.
PBX extension is a carrier-independent offering in which mobile phones can become extensions on the corporate switchboard in a one-number, one-voicemail, PBX-for-all service. If the phones in question are dual-mode cellular and WiFi, the same handset can even double as a mobile when offsite and a cordless when on. Not only does that make itinerant employees reachable on their regular extension numbers, but also means they can perform all the regular functions they carry out when at their desk on their mobile, such as short-number calling to fellow employees, call parking and forwarding.
A number of other vendors such as Cisco, Avaya, Mitel, and Alcatel on the PBX side, and Nokia in handsets, are offering similar products to the Voice Mobility Suite, and some are already supporting BlackBerry devices. Cisco, for instance, has announced support for a WiFi-only BlackBerry device (the 7270) in its recent Unified Communications portfolio. The difference, for RIM, is that it will seek to leverage its strength in enterprise (five million users worldwide, three million of them in the US) to offer the Ascendent technology as a ‘push voice’ capability.
Beyond the FMC offering, Ascendent also has a conferencing product. The technology can be used in any of three ways: Join Me, in which an individual can be conferenced in to an existing conversation; Meet Me, in which a conference is scheduled and notifications with pass codes sent out; or Get Me, in which participants are automatically called for ad hoc or scheduled meetings.
A further Ascendent product is Notification, which offers one-to-many communications.
All these functions (FMC, conferencing, and notification) can be grouped under the generic collaboration heading where technology is deployed to enable people to work together and interact regardless of where they are and what types of devices they are using. This is another area of intense interest, with heavyweights like Microsoft, IBM, and Cisco as some of the many names seeking market share.
A more unusual part of the Ascendent portfolio, at least in the context of FMC, collaboration and VoIP players, is business continuity, which is normally a buzzword to be heard from the likes of SunGard or IBM. What Ascendent is talking about is the ability to deploy redundant voice systems (spare copies of Voice Mobility Suite) at remote locations and direct them to assume control of voice services for devices affected by any primary system or site outage.
For RIM, the acquisition not only opens up the possibility of selling enterprise FMC and collaboration alongside its existing BlackBerry services, but also should enable it to tighten relationships with the enterprise market, which it has previously addressed primarily through mobile carriers that sell BlackBerry devices and services.
The challenge on the collaboration side will be to convince corporate customers that its offerings are more valuable than those of Microsoft, which is inevitably touting the ability of its Live Communications Server to integrate with major apps in the Office Suite, with its 90%+ share of the world’s office productivity software market.
The acquisition of such an enterprise-facing business as Ascendent is an important development for RIM, in that bigger carriers like Vodafone and Cingular prefer to retain customer ‘ownership’ with own-branded services, and in many cases have already begun to offer them alongside BlackBerry services. Microsoft is also barging its way into this market with both the Windows Mobile 5.0 platform on handsets (particularly from Asian ODMs like HTC) and with the push capability now available in Exchange.
With all these developments in its core market, RIM needs to expand its horizons, with the corporates a logical place to go, leveraging the BlackBerry’s quasi-iconic status there.