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RIM to give away server software

Research In Motion is fighting to retain business customers--who are tempted by competing smartphones--with a free version of its enterprise server software.

Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis announces a free version of server software at Mobile World Congress. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is trying to hold on to business customers with a free version of its BlackBerry Enterprise Server software.

Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis announced here Tuesday during his keynote address to the Mobile World Congress that the company will offer a free version of BlackBerry Enterprise Server software for small and medium-size business customers, as well as for businesses that want to let employees use their own phones to access corporate e-mail.

BlackBerry Express Server is software that syncs BlackBerry phones with Microsoft Exchange or Windows Small Business servers. Previously, RIM had charged all companies a licensing fee for using this software, which not only provides access to corporate e-mail but also adds security.

Starting in March, RIM will allow customers to use most of the functionality found in the BlackBerry Express Server suite for free. The new version will work with Microsoft Exchange 2010, 2007, and 2003. The free version of the server will include access to e-mail, calendar, contacts, notes, and tasks. It will also allow BlackBerry users to edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, access files stored on the company network, and use other business applications behind company firewalls.

Lazaridis noted that customers will not have to give up security because the new version of software uses the same security architecture found in the paid version of the software.

The free version will scale down certain features, though. For example, RIM still suggests companies subscribe to BlackBerry Enterprise Server version 5 if they require additional security policies, monitoring features, or high availability.

Lazaridis also announced a few features that will be added to the paid version of the BlackBerry server software, including video conferencing, "enterprise-class social networking," and PBX integration.

The company is targeting two markets with the free version of the product. First, it will help small and medium-size businesses that want employees to use BlackBerry's corporate e-mail solutions, but don't require some of the more advanced services offered for larger companies. It's also a good fit for all companies, whether large or small, that want to let employees use their personal BlackBerry devices to access corporate e-mail.

Business customers have been RIM's bread and butter since the company's inception. But competitors, such as Apple's iPhone, are cutting into RIM's customer base, as many companies look for alternatives to RIM. Some companies are seeking to reduce their costs by eliminating server licensing fees. Others are succumbing to pressure from employees who want to use their own devices for their jobs.

Microsoft's announcement Monday of the new version of its mobile operating system, Microsoft Phone 7, could add to the pressure on RIM. Microsoft has also historically served business customers with its mobile software. And if its new operating system becomes a hit, it could help Microsoft steal business customers from RIM.

But by offering a version of the BlackBerry enterprise server software for free, RIM has essentially eliminated a cost barrier.

Lazaridis also demonstrated the company's new WebKit browser, a faster version of the browser that is meant to help the company's smartphones compete against other devices in its class that use the Apple's or Google Android operating system.

RIM's co-CEO demonstrates how Twitter can be accessed from a BlackBerry e-mail in-box. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Finally, Lazaridis discussed the company's application strategy, which includes emphasis on new "super apps" that integrate applications into core functions people use regularly. For example, Lazaridis demonstrated how users could view and send Twitter messages directly from their BlackBerry e-mail in-boxes. Lazaridis also talked about how BlackBerry users can synchronize eBay applications with the phone's calendar to remind them when auctions are closing.

"There is lots of talk about apps," he said. "But when it comes to apps, what matters is quality and not quantity. You don't need 100,000 apps. All you need are the apps that people love and the ones that are most relevant to the mobile experience."

Correction at 7:10 a.m. PST: The spelling of the RIM co-CEO's last name has been fixed.