Jam ready to sour BlackBerry’s debut

Jim Morrison, CEO of mobile device maker i-mate, is not afraid to tell everyone how well the firm is doing and how it can fend off competitiors - especially BlackBerry.

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By  Peter Branton Published  July 17, 2005

|~|main_morrison,jim.jpg|~|Jim Morrison is confident that i-mate can fight off the attentions of BlackBerry when the competitor finally makes its entrance in the Middle East PDA market.|~|There are two things you need to know about Jim Morrison, founder and chief executive officer of mobile device maker i-mate. Firstly, he’s not shy about stating his opinions. Secondly, he’s really not shy about stating his opinions. The IT Weekly interview has barely begun before he’s complaining about his company’s comparative lack of coverage in the publication. Claiming that another vendor has been unfairly promoted above i-mate, he says boldly that it, “must have paid you for that one,” before heading off an attempt to suggest that the coming of the BlackBerry device to the region is likely to have any impact on sales of his own company’s devices. “There’s not a great deal to be scared of about BlackBerry, although they are very good at marketing,” he states. The latter part of that statement would apply to Morrison, himself, who does not miss any chance to plug his own company’s products. “The market for i-mate is fantastic, as far as I can tell, and I can tell that through our sales and you can probably tell that if you look at the number of people carrying i-mate devices,” he states confidently. “Also, the reputation that we have in the market is fairly awesome, I think. I’m not surprised by the speed that we have penetrated the market and the depth that we have penetrated it and the way that we have become the icon for high-end individuals and for people with the latest and the best. We are a style icon; Jam is the thing to be seen with,” he claims. For those people not familiar with i-mate — and Morrison would say there aren’t many of those — the company makes intelligent devices and smartphones, including the above-mentioned Jam handheld, based on the Microsoft operating system. Prior to setting up i-mate, Morrison was in charge of mobile device and application development for the UK telco operator, British Telecom (BT). However, he left the company after it spun off its wireless business into a smaller operation, now known as O2. Morrison and three other BT executives founded Carrier Devices in Glasgow in 2001 but the company relocated to Dubai in 2003. “We looked at the Middle East as a region when BT was expanding to have a global wireless empire before the telco self-destructed,” Morrison says. While he acknowledges that there are downsides to being in the region in terms of speaking to some large corporate customers, he is adamant that the company will remain here: “As far as I am concerned our head office is here and we are staying put,” he states. That head office employs around 60 people, with another 60 scattered around the world, an operation that Morrison prefers to describe as “efficient” rather than lean. It’s certainly hard working: i-mate has a software development house in Redmond, US, right by the Microsoft campus. The 15 or so developers are provided with free coffee from the local coffee shop, and Morrison says he can tell by the size of the coffee bill each month how much work they are doing. Like many other companies based in Dubai today, Morrison has ambitious growth plans for i-mate. “In the next three years we’ll probably have doubled in size and we’ll probably have more solutions-type people,” he states. While the company currently works almost exclusively with partners, that will change slightly, as it looks more to the corporate market. However, partners will still supply the hardware to customers and Morrison rankles when it is suggested that i-mate will provide consulting-style services. “We’ll actually provide them with a solution rather than telling them about a solution, we’ll do it rather than talk about it,” he says. However, he is cagier when it comes to divulging sales figures, claiming he can’t — and won’t — release such information. Later however, he states that the company’s Club i-mate site has something like 115,000 active members. “There’s probably about a third of people register and probably about half of them stay active, but I think the numbers are climbing,” he says. Doing the math, you come up with device sales of something up to 750,000, although this is more of a ‘guesstimate’ than anything else. That rectitude to divulge numbers may have something to do with much-mooted plans for the company to float at some point, plans which seem to have been shelved for now. Last year a valuation of US$800 million was being assigned to the i-mate flotation, however, it now appears that the company may not float at all. “We’re looking at it right now and the decision will be made in the next year is all I can say,” he states. “We have to work out why we want to float. The main benefit of floating is to be more publicly aware to Western companies. There are some of the big carriers that will not touch a company unless it’s a public company, so we may have to do it for those purposes. However, we don’t have to do it for the money side of things.” Morrison doesn’t have to do many things for the money side: he is believed to be a millionaire through inheritance, and could retire at any point. For him, i-mate is more than just a business however: he likes the fact that his devices are so popular with their users. “We actually have groupies; that’s fairly awesome for such a small company. There’s web sites dedicated to users’ i-mates,” he says. “The only other thing I can think of that gets this is Apple. I’m not saying that we’re an Apple, it would be nice to be an Apple, but to have these sort of people that are hooked on our devices is fairly awesome.” The company i-mate is most closely linked with is not Apple, but another IT giant: Microsoft. As well as that software development team at Redmond, i-mate has very strong links with Microsoft, with Morrison believing the Windows Mobile operating system will come out on top in its battle with the Symbian OS for the device market, especially for the corporate market. “Corporate decisions are going to move away from the purchasing department and go to the IT department because if you’re connected to the IT systems, then the IT manager is going to say what gets connected. And, if it happens to be back-end Microsoft, front-end Microsoft and your device is designed to work with those it’s an easy decision for them,” he argues. “The fact they already know the OS saves them a lot of time on training and development. The other thing is with Microsoft you get maybe 600,000 developers, with Symbian you get maybe 100,000 — maybe less than that — and with BlackBerry you probably get two and a dog because it’s a bespoke operating system.” Ask Morrison if he believes Microsoft is going to stay in pole position and he replies, “I guarantee you, I know a couple of people that run it.” And he’s not exaggerating. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took time out during his recent trip to Dubai (see IT Weekly, 30 April-6 May 2005) to have a meeting with him. “I wouldn’t say I chat to Steve all the time. I do communicate with him on e-mail, but he’s a busy guy. The good thing though is, if I have to, I can get to him,” Morrison says simply. Some of the fruits of i-mate’s close work with Microsoft include a new software product that allows users to have a single view on their PDA of all their media content. Called 1-View, i-mate describes the software as ‘true multi-server, multi-client’ technology. While 1-View is aimed at both consumer and corporate clients, Morrison believes it will appeal to corporate IT departments because of its management features. “It’s going to be hugely interesting for them because it allows them to manage the data on the device better and gives them a lot more security functionality,” he says. “It also allows us to manage your device, so if you come to us with a problem we can actually do a lot of stuff remotely,” he claims. For instance, an IT department could send out updates to a Word or Excel document remotely, or send out other files. The 1-View server can also be maintained behind a company’s firewall and the company could still get technical support from i-mate, Morrison claims. The corporate market is where Morrison sees the future for i-mate and indeed for the mobility market. “It’s now the time to move mobility into the corporate sector. The OS software is static, the security is all there, the connectivity is all there, and there’s now so many applications available to you,” he says. “We’re doing a lot of work now with corporates and for every one corporate we’re doing at the moment we’re getting about 20 reference customers, ” he adds. While consumer business previously dominated for i-mate, corporate customers now account for about 20-25% of business, and it’s growing rapidly, mainly outside of the Middle East, Morrison says. Corporate customers are looking more and more at mobile devices as a serious business tool, he says. “You have to thank BlackBerry a lot for that because they’ve created a momentum in the market where people see e-mail as a mobile tool.” The B word. BlackBerry maker, Research in Motion, has recently announced a deal with Orascom Telecom to launch its products into the region (see IT Weekly 14-20 May 2005). While the device has the almost-iconic status in other parts of the world that Morrison claims i-mate enjoys here, he insists he doesn’t see it as a threat. I don’t think so,” he states. “You know about SP2 coming out on Exchange, that removes the entire need for BlackBerry Server. Microsoft is giving it free rather than you having to pay US$5000 for it and having to maintain it and back it up. There’s a whole list of other things that BB doesn’t do. It doesn’t do attachments, you can’t play games on it, it doesn’t do Java.” “I know BlackBerry very well,”Morrison adds. “I brought them into the UK. I actually did that when I was at BT so I know exactly what BlackBerry does and where it does it technically. Market-wise they’ve got a great reputation. It’s a great service and it was a great service they did e-mail-on-the-go very well, but now as we’ve moved on they haven’t caught up fast enough,” he argues. As far as Morrison is concerned, i-mate is never going to be a company that is accused of not keeping up, he’s determined to be seen as the pacesetter.||**||

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