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RIM's BlackBerry App Store Opens for Business

Research in Motion's BlackBerry App World opens for business today, putting the company in position to strike back at Apple, which has boosted the popularity of its iPhone among consumers and developers thanks to its a large collection of downloadable applications.

RIM (NASDAQ: RIMM) expects approximately 1,000 free and paid applications to be posted by partners this week, including applications from popular brands such as MTV Networks, Bloomberg and the New York Times that can be downloaded either by Wi-Fi or mobile networks.

Features include the ability to browse applications by a variety of categories and search by keyword; user reviews that include a "recommend" tool for passing on apps to friends through e-mail, BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry PIN messages or SMS; a personal storage utility for the apps; a "Top Downloads" area for most popular apps and weekly featured apps.

BlackBerry App World won't support all of the company's devices, however; it's limited to BlackBerries with a trackball or touchscreen and running version 4.2 or higher of its software.

"The BlackBerry platform provides a truly unparalleled mobile experience for millions of people and we are thrilled today to enhance that experience with a new app store that helps connect consumers with developers and carriers," Mike Lazaridis, RIM's president and co-CEO, said in a statement. "BlackBerry App World aggregates a wide variety of personal and business apps in a way that makes it very easy for consumers to discover and download the apps that suit them while preserving the appropriate IT architecture and controls required by our enterprise customers."

The launch also marks RIM's long-anticipated answer to Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) phenomenally successful App Store for the iPhone, which already offers over 25,000 applications following its release last year.

To boost buzz of the launch, the company also announced a full-length episode mobile TV service app coming to the app store in early May.

The app, called PrimeTime2Go by QuickPlay Media, will cost $7.99 a month and allow viewers to download and watch shows such as "The Office" and "CSI" on-demand. It will work on BlackBerry Bold and BlackBerry Curve 8900 smartphones, which are currently available to AT&T and T-Mobile customers.

The service will allow customers to easily browse content and download selected programs to their smartphone in the background, thereby allowing them to use other services while shows are loading. Following the download, subscribers will be able to watch their selected program on their schedule until the pre-determined viewing period expires. All selected content will be delivered over Wi-Fi which provides cost savings, since it will not impact the user's data usage, says the company.

"QuickPlay's announcement of its PrimeTime2Go application is an encouraging proof point of the emerging trend we're seeing in terms of leveraging Wi-Fi technology to move mobile traffic, at a significant cost savings to the end customer," Scott Ellison, vice president, mobile consumer services at IDC, said in a statement. "By combining premium content, consumer-friendly download mechanisms and a smooth user experience, QuickPlay's service will be a great example of the future of mobile entertainment."

With these announcements, it appears RIM is solidifying its position as a viable competitor to Apple, though naturally there's a long way to go.

"RIM already sells more than half of all new BlackBerries to consumers for personal use - they are never connected to a corporate server. So it is critical that RIM expand its brand - and its capabilities - in the consumer multimedia space," said Avi Greengart, research director of consumer devices at Current Analysis. "Easy access to long form video content is something that has been a missing piece for most smartphone vendors, with Apple's iTunes/iPhone being the notable exception."

The debut of the app store comes at a time when the smartphone market, and in particular, app store usage, is expected to weather the recession by continuing to post gains. In fact, the number of mobile application users is set to quadruple in five years, according to new research from In-Stat.

Among the vendors following Apple into mobile stores, RIM is among the better positioned -- particularly compared to Microsoft's Marketplace for Mobile, which is slated to open at the end of the year. AdMob, a mobile advertising company, said it saw 97 percent of BlackBerry requests during February coming from the company's operating system version 4.2 or higher -- which means these devices will be able to access BlackBerry App World when it goes live.

In comparison, a significant percentage of the Windows Mobile user base is running older versions of the OS, so they won't be able to access Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) apps if they go live at the end of the year, according to AdMob.

That's grim news for Microsoft, since AdMob's rankings may signal which platforms third-party developers ultimately adopt, since they generally hesitate to invest in creating apps for mobile operating systems that have yet to prove themselves to be widely adopted and successful.

Meanwhile, the smartphone market is heating up, with sales pegged to grow over the next five years, albeit more slowly than in years past.

This comes as new devices are slated to enter the market this year sporting the closely watched Google-backed Android mobile OS, as well as Palm's expected debut of its Pre smartphone -- all of which are gunning to grab market share away from the iPhone.

Additionally, hardware makers such as Acer are scrambling to enter the fray while industry watchers speculate that Dell and others may also join in.

Update adds details on PrimeTime2Go and comments from Greengart.