Microsoft's investment in putting its Bing search and maps in BlackBerry mobile devices by the fall holiday season pits Research In Motion and Microsoft against Google in a massive scramble for mobile search customers.
Analysts speculated that Microsoft, which recently made a billion-dollar-plus investment in Nokia, is probably also paying RIM "boatloads" for the partnership deal, although Microsoft would not reveal any terms.
Immediately, several analysts noted the importance of the move, given the growth in smartphones and the use of mobile search in advertising and location-based purchasing.
"This shows that the battle for mobile search is on," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner and a Computerworld columnist, in an email.
"Ballmer's presence at BlackBerry World is a great example of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend,' " Gartenberg said. "Google indeed is the enemy in this case."
Ballmer said that Bing would become the default search provider in the browser and maps on BlackBerry devices, adding, "I've never been more excited about where our future is going."
The news was such a surprise that analysts attending BlackBerry World said RIM officials couldn't immediately explain any of the details to them.
A Microsoft spokeswoman clarified in an email to Computerworld that Microsoft and RIM announced a partnership to "make Bing the preferred search and maps provider on all new BlackBerry devices ... starting this holiday season." She said Bing will be the search default for the BlackBerry browser and the default search and maps provider on new RIM devices that are "presented to mobile operators in the U.S. and select international markets."
Asked to clarify the difference between being the "default" vs. "preferred" provider, the Microsoft spokeswoman said that Bing would be the default search and maps provider on new RIM devices when they are presented to carriers but that "the carrier can change the default," which means Bing is still preferred by RIM but customers will have other choices for mobile search.
Kevin Burden, an analyst at ABI Research, said that while Bing will be the preferred search engine on BlackBerry devices, Bing will not be the only search and mapping tool available on those phones. "The companies are saying they will put more emphasis on Bing and that it works better than Google," Burden said.
In a blog post later Tuesday, Microsoft's Bing director, Matt Dahlin, noted that Bing is already shipping as the default search and map application for the recently released BlackBerry PlayBook. "Together we'll also market and promote the strength of our joint offerings as 'Making better decisions with Bing on BlackBerry,' " he said.
Dahlin also said there will be a "convergence of search, commerce, social and location-centric searches where Bing will provide the intelligence and the organizing layer in the cloud that connects a user's intent with action, helping people be more productive."
Deciding to work together against Google makes sense for both RIM and Microsoft, analysts said.
"RIM doesn't really want Google as the default search and mapping tool, since RIM competes so heavily with Android, also made by Google," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates.
Meanwhile, "Microsoft has the potential to make lots of money with Bing search and services, so it's a win for Microsoft and takes revenues that Google would have had. So both companies get something out of this, and both are poking at Google with this partnership."
Gold noted that Microsoft already has a partnership with RIM on cloud-based hosting services through RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server and with office productivity software.
Even though Microsoft has Windows Phone 7, an operating system for smartphones that Nokia and others will deploy, "the potential revenue implications for Bing are actually far greater than [for] WP7," Gold added.
Burden said that the partnership with RIM is "almost like a kind of safety net for Microsoft, since what happens if Windows Phone doesn't take off? The safety net is to make sure you have a mobile play and that Microsoft isn't shut out completely." Rather than relying just on the Windows Phone OS, Microsoft "realizes that one of their best plays is to be an enabler or technology," Burden added.
Burden and Gartenberg wondered how much Microsoft paid RIM to be its preferred search and maps provider, given that Microsoft paid more than $1 billon to provide the operating system for Nokia devices, a fact acknowledged by Nokia officials in February.
Microsoft wouldn't discuss any terms of the alliance.
Burden concluded: "To be the preferred provider for BlackBerry didn't come for free. I don't know what the number is, but it is certainly not free."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.