- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2008

COLUMN:

I’m in Week Four of using Apple Inc.’s iPhone 3G, and all’s very well so far. But, to borrow from the late Satchell Paige, the folks in Cupertino might not want to look back: Mike Lazaridis might be gaining on them.

Mr. Lazaridis, one of the more brilliant thinkers I’ve seen, is founder of Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian firm whose BlackBerry hand-held device is perhaps the original “addictive” phone. It’s easy to see why: The BlackBerry interface has been, and remains, a good one. The devices are dependable, and the service behind them is quite good.

Now, a move is afoot to make the BlackBerry more than your average communicator, and to broaden its appeal beyond hard-core business/political types. A new model, the BlackBerry Bold, is coming out within a few weeks - how few isn’t known - and it’s touted to have enough multimedia features to take on the iPhone in a serious way.

That could be hype, but we’ll see, RIM and/or AT&T willing.

During a recent promotional stop in the District, RIM and a bunch of firms offered a “Taste of BlackBerry,” in which various business- and consumer-oriented applications were on display. You can, come October, open your garage door with the press of a BlackBerry button, or program your digital video recorder. You can follow the Nationals’ up-and-down patterns, or book a hotel room in Dubuque, Iowa, and beat the rush for the 2012 primary. You can listen to XM Radio via a BlackBerry, or watch Fox News Channel. Oh, and yes, you can make and receive telephone calls, send and receive e-mail, and SMS your BFF to D-E-A-T-H, if you so desire.

The whole point of the “Taste” exercise wasn’t to show how much - or how little - taste some applications developers on the BlackBerry platform may have, but rather how much the little bugger actually can do. Plain old mobile phone calling is so, well, 1993.

Unify4Life is the remote-control application, and it ties in via cigarette-pack-size “hubs” that, in turn, plug into your Apple iPod dock, TV set top box and, somehow, the garage thingy. I saw a demo of this at the D.C. event and, yes, it looks very cool, once you factor in the “I can see a recording of ‘Dancing With the Stars’ while sitting in the boring staff meeting” effect. The free “Remote” application for Apple’s iPhone will control an AppleTV set top device, and, I’m guessing, some programmer out there will write a “universal remote control” application for the iPhone at some point. But, for now, it’s a hands-down win for BlackBerry in this category. That is, of course, if the Unify4Life product works as well IRL - in real life - as it does in the world of planned demos. Details and preorders are at Unify4life.

Business travelers - a group that has formed a large portion of BlackBerry’s loyal fan base - will be delighted with WorldMate Live, which takes your travel confirmation e-mails and builds an itinerary for you. The itinerary is synchronized to your BlackBerry (full disclosure: WorldMate also will support Windows Mobile phones, and may yet extend to a certain iDevice, if you catch my drift) and you’re alerted to changes, delays and cancellations. Arrive in town without a hotel room booked and WorldMate can make suggestions on where to stay based on your appointment schedule. Call it a personal secretary in a box. Again, it’s a neat idea, especially if it works as advertised. You can investigate more at WorldMate.

Those road warriors will also likely have to make the occasional PowerPoint presentation and, for that, the $249 Impatica ShowMate will more than do the trick. The device is controlled by the BlackBerry’s Bluetooth wireless connection, and outputs a video signal to a computer display or a projector and, presto, you have a slide show. It may not make any of the more than 30 million daily PowerPoint presentations more enjoyable, but it will make them easier to give. Check it out via Impatica ShowMate.

I’d be remiss if MobiTV, now available on BlackBerry devices using Sprint, Verizon and Alltel services, wasn’t mentioned. They bring about 40 live TV channels to the device, and if the BlackBerry experience is anything like that on Sprint’s Palm-based hand-helds, it’ll be a fantastic way to make those wait times at the DMV pass happily. Just plug in your headphones, please; I don’t need to hear “Judge Judy” from your hand-held.

There’s a bit more in the offing, BlackBerry applicationswise. And, as we’ve seen since the July 11 launch of the online “App Store” by Apple, there’s plenty in the pipeline for the iPhone. But for those “enterprise” users chained to a BlackBerry, these new items offer some liberation from the cubicle-gray world of mere messaging. If, as the saying goes, iron sharpens iron, then the BlackBerry applications challenge also likely will evoke a fair amount of further innovation from the Palm and iPhone camps.

• E-mail Mark Kellner

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