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RIM positioning BB10 to lead e-commerce revolution

Paying with your smartphone is coming soon. And Research In Motion wants to lead the industry.

With the months ticking down until RIM launches its first smartphones based on the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, CEO Thorsten Heins is already positioning the platform, set to go live in Q1 of 2013, as more than just a messaging device.

In a Jakarta Post article, Heins said while messaging capability will be a given — including a new version of BlackBerry Messenger that goes "beyond texting" — RIM is really gunning for the emerging e-commerce market, as well, with devices and apps that support secure point-of-sale, phone-based payment.

"Think about transacting money," Heins told the Post. "This is one element in which you could have a huge BBM population in Indonesia transferring money from one partner to another."

Indonesia is a key growth market for RIM, currently responsible for 8 per cent of its overall revenue. Strong takeup of BlackBerry 10 there will likely fuel similar demand for e-commerce-enabled smartphones in other markets.

Early days yet

The promise of tap-to-pay smartphones has been around for a while. Microsoft's first kick at the e-commerce can, an online wallet service for its long since abandoned MSN Passport offering, was released 13 years ago. Subsequent efforts to shift retail payments away from cash and plastic to mobile devices have been hampered by immature hardware, lack of industry standards and hesitation by retailers to invest in proprietary — and potentially soon-obsolete — infrastructure. No one wanted to be stuck with the payment industry's next Betamax.

The smartphone explosion has since made consumer adoption more than a pipe dream. Developers looking for the next big thing to differentiate their apps see potential in the mobile payment space for building sustainable revenue either through in-app purchases, retail partnerships or co-branding.

Intensifying competition

Google released Wallet last year, Apple included Passbook in iOS6, and Microsoft will include e-wallet capability in Windows Phone 8, set for launch Oct. 29. In Canada, CIBC and Rogers are launching the suretap mobile payments system later this month. Despite the inevitable move toward the mainstream, it's becoming increasingly clear that the process isn't as fully evolved as the vendors would like.

Passbook is still an early-stage product that will ultimately receive expanded payment options, but is currently better suited to gift cards and movie tickets than in-store purchases. Google Wallet has wrestled with security and hardware compatibility issues within its Open Handset Alliance.

RIM has shipped BlackBerry 7 handsets with integrated Near Field Communication (NFC) chips since 2011, but its efforts were thwarted by relatively little developer, vendor and retailer support, and market response was virtually nil. Heins's statements suggest the company isn't going to let those chips, which support close-range, secure financial transactions, sit idle in its next-generation phones.

Beyond e-commerce

This isn't the first time Heins has slipped hints about extending BlackBerry 10 beyond basic smartphone functionality. A video played at RIM's BlackBerry 10 Jam World Tour events showing a tricked-out car interior powered by the new operating system suggests a possible automotive play, as well. BB10 is based on technology developed by QNX Software Systems, which RIM acquired in 2010. QNX-developed solutions have long been sold into vertical markets, including automotive and industrial controls, and it's an easy call for RIM to take the technology back to its roots.

Wherever RIM takes BB10, Heins's statements strongly suggest the company knows it needs to move beyond the current smartphone state-of-the-art. RIM kickstarted the smartphone revolution by yanking messaging out of its clunky, insecure toddlerhood and forcing it to grow up in the harsh, security-conscious corporate world. Heins is pitching a second revolution that sees his company doing the same thing for e-commerce.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.