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Microsoft to quiz BlackBerry owners

Next week, engineers from the software giant's Usability Group will be observing and interviewing professionals who use Research In Motion's popular BlackBerry pagers.

Microsoft is sniffing around the BlackBerry bush.

Next week, engineers from Microsoft's Usability Group will be observing and interviewing professionals who use Research In Motion's popular BlackBerry pagers. The pagers allow subscribers to send and receive e-mail and Internet data through a miniature keyboard and small display. Deluxe models also include Palm-like organizer functions.

"We're trying to find out how people use these mobile devices and, based on that information, try to improve the functionality of future products or those under development," said Tats Amase, a project manager with the Usability Group.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry pagers have caught on with corporations and businesses. Palm, Handspring and devices based on Microsoft's Pocket PC have seen sales bloom in the mobile device category, but mostly in the consumer market. Corporate users represent the next big opportunity for growth, and mobile device manufacturers are jockeying for the lead.

"RIM is smack dab in the middle of the enterprise market, and Microsoft, with its Pocket PC and Stinger plays, are more on the periphery and they realize they have to be closer to the middle," said IDC analyst Kevin Burden. Stinger is the code name for Microsoft's venture into "smart phones," which are designed for both wireless Web access and conventional phone calls.

At its most recent developers conference last December, Palm executives directed developers toward the enterprise market and urged them to create applications for the pinstriped crowd.

Palm is also adding always-on e-mail and calendar update capabilities to its wirelessly enabled personal digital assistants.

Research In Motion's service has revived the market for paging technology. Intel and notebook manufacturers are also working to bring a similar capability to notebooks.

Representatives from the mobile devices division at Microsoft said they are not working on a product that will incorporate paging features. The company has developed operating systems for Pocket PC devices manufactured by Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Casio.