Competition Nipping At BlackBerry

Sidekick II
Larry Magid analyzes technical issues for CBS News and

Now that Research in Motion and NTP have reached a settlement, BlackBerry users can breathe a sigh of relief. Their precious phone, mobile e-mail system and personal organizer has a new lease on life.

RIM no longer has to worry about being shut down by the courts, but it still has to worry about that other jury –- the marketplace. While the company's immediate future is secure, its long term future now depends on how it can compete with other players in this field.

RIM has clearly done something right. It has shown that at least a certain segment of the market will flock to a device that is well designed, easy to use and highly functional. On all those fronts, RIM has succeeded where others have, so far, yet to prove themselves. As I said in my recent review of the BlackBerry 8700c, the BlackBerry is indeed a very elegant system.

Yet, there are other players nipping at their heels. Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system does, basically, pretty much the same thing as the Blackberry on a variety of devices including the new Palm Treo 700W. But, while Microsoft and its hardware partners clearly have their eye on BlackBerry's corporate customer base, another company could spell danger if RIM ever decides to put major resources into the consumer market.

Palo Alto-based Danger, Inc. has developed the software and backend services behind the Sidekick II a personal organizer being marketed mainly to consumers, available in the U.S. from T-Mobile. If Sidekick sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because it's the device that Paris Hilton was using when it got hacked, famously revealing information that she had stored in the device's address book. That hacking incident aside, the Sidekick remains a viable product in the as yet small but growing connected mobile messaging market.

After reading my review of the BlackBerry, the folks at Danger -– which happens to be headquartered a bit more than a mile from my house –- asked me if I'd be willing to try out the Sidekick II. I'm carrying one now and I'm beginning to see how –- for some users –- it might actually be a good alternative to the BlackBerry.

Let me start by saying that the Sidekick II is not a new product. It's been on the market for about 18 months and, compared to newer products, it has just a couple of symptoms of old age –- namely it's on T-Mobile's slower (not broadband network) and it lacks Bluetooth connectivity.

The speed issue is minor. You're not using a small handheld to download large files and the only thing you're really going to miss from the lack of Bluetooth is a wireless headset. They're cool, but they're not absolutely necessary.

What I like about the device is its large and relatively easy to use keyboard. That's important if you plan to generate e-mail or chat on the instant messaging service. Sure, the BlackBerry is fine for a few cryptic notes, but I actually find myself being a bit wordier with the Sidekick because of its keyboard.

There is, of course, a cost to that.

The Sidekick is thicker and longer than the BlackBerry 8700c and, overall, even a bit bigger than most previous BlackBerries. Also, to use the keyboard you have to flip over the screen. It's a bit more inconvenient and it also makes the phone a little less ergonomic.

Oh the positive side, the Sidekick is very easy to use.

Once you figure out the function of the four buttons that surround the screen, you can pretty much figure out the whole interface. A "jump" key takes you to a main menu where you can toggle between the phone, AOL Instant Messenger, e-mail, phone messages, Address book, Web browser, Camera, Calendar and To Do list along with whatever games you may have installed. There is also a four-way rocker switch that can be used to navigate and in some games.

Speaking of games, this is very much a consumer device and a youth oriented device. Unlike any current BlackBerries it has a camera and the ability to download games, ring tones and other applications.

There are some things that the Sidekick II can't do.

It is not a tool for corporate users who need access to their Microsoft Exchange e-mail. Still, it does come with its own e-mail account, which works just fine. I had my regular email forwarded to my new t-mail account and my only complaint is that device's memory is only sufficient for about two days worth of my mail before I have to delete it.

My BlackBerry can store about a week's worth of my mail. Your experience will depend on how much mail you get.

You can synchronize the device with a Microsoft Outlook address book, but you have to pay $10 for the required program. One nice thing is that the address data is sent to the Sidekick via the cellular network. There is no need to connect the device to the PC. Just run the synchronization software on the PC, wait a few minutes and your address book will be on your Sidekick.

Like all cell phone devices, prices vary depending on the whim of the carriers and other resellers. When I checked the T-Mobile site it was $349 but Amazon was, selling it for $199 with a $50 rebate from T-Mobile plus a $150 rebate from Amazon. That's right, if you send in the rebate forms the phone is $1 cheaper than free as long as you get a service plan for $39.99 a month or higher through Go figure.

One more thing. T-Mobile, like Cingular, uses the GSM network which is also used in many other parts of the world including Europe. That's where I'll be this week using my Sidekick to keep in touch while I'm checking out the thousands of exhibits at the giant CeBIT technology fair in Hanover, Germany.

I'll try not to spill beer on it.

A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."