During his keynote address at the BlackBerry World Conference on Tuesday, Research in Motion (RIM) CEO Mike Lazaridis introduced an unexpected guest: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who recently allied with struggling smartphone giant Nokia in a bid to make the BlackBerry and other rivals obsolete. So what was this appearance all about? Is Microsoft having second thoughts about its own smartphone platform, Windows Phone? Or is this just business as usual?
Despite the usual Chicken Little hysterics online, it's the latter.
Ballmer was on hand to announce what is really just the latest in a long line of search partnerships with smartphone platform makers. That is, Microsoft has already established partnerships with Apple, Nokia, various wireless network companies, and others in order to establish Bing as an alternative to the ubiquitous Google search capabilities that most handsets still utilize. So, adding BlackBerry to the list wasn't just non-unique, it was in many ways belated. It's already possible to get Bing on the dominant iPhone and Android platforms, so adding BlackBerry to the mix was simply common sense.
But try explaining common sense to the noobisphere. Some have overstated the Microsoft/RIM partnership, in one case suggesting that it "proves" Microsoft knows it "will never come close to catching Google and Apple in the mobile market." But this deal is completely unrelated to the fortunes of Windows Phone and is in fact in keeping with a long-time strategy of proliferating its technology across multiple platforms. Microsoft's Bing business is separate from the company's other platforms, and for that business to be successful, Bing needs to be available everywhere.
The only real surprise Steve Ballmer offered at BlackBerry World, in fact, was that he had the temerity to quickly promote Windows Phone at RIM's own conference. And yes, he did just that. I'm guessing the audience was somewhat stunned.
"I love Windows Phone," Ballmer said as he took the stage. "But I won't talk about it much here today. And then there's BlackBerry. While Microsoft will support the top phone platforms with our cloud services, we're going to invest uniquely in BlackBerry's platform."
Beyond that, the Ballmer appearance was apparently a non-event for both Microsoft and RIM: Neither mentions the appearance on the company's respective press-oriented news sites, and no video or transcript of the appearance is currently available for dissection. But according to live blogs of the event, Bing and Bing Maps are being added to current BlackBerry models, "effective immediately," and will be "integrated" into future versions of the OS that will appear in devices "this holiday season."
This type of partnership, of course, makes plenty of sense if you know anything about Microsoft's history. (And if you don't, a reading of Paul Allen's recently released Idea Man is a great place to start.) The software giant has always pursued a strategy of multiple partners, and although this is seen most clearly in the PC market today, this strategy dates back to the forming of the company in the mid-1970s, when it provided programming languages, development environments, and other software for any fledgling microcomputer platform that came along. Today, you can see the modern version of this strategy in Microsoft's Mac, web, cloud, and smartphone solutions.
Put simply, Microsoft's partnership with RIM makes sense, both as a strategy and in the context of the company's history. Let's not pretend otherwise.