Friday, May 26, 2006

Mobile platforms: BlackBerry -- Mobile e-mail's 'gold standard' has started a weekly in-depth series that evaluates the pluses and minuses of the various mobile platforms on the market. This week it looks at the BlackBerry, which many say is "great for mobile e-mail, but its functionality as an application device needs some fine-tuning."

Currently, BlackBerry is riding high in the mobile platform space due to its mobile e-mail capabilities. Todd Kort at Gartner said, "It's been kind of the gold standard for mobile e-mail."

Jack Gold at J.Gold Associates opined that "when it comes to choosing mobile platforms and devices, an e-mail-centric business can benefit from BlackBerry, but if a company is looking for more than mobile e-mail, like application integration and other advanced functionality, then BlackBerry may not be the right choice."

According to the article, the BlackBerry's strengths are that "It's highly secure, it integrates well with other platforms, it works with several carriers, and it can be deployed globally. It is easy to manage, has a longer than usual battery life, and has a small form-factor with an easy-to-use keyboard."

Gartner's Kort said, "Everyone else falls down in at least one of those categories." Kort noted BlackBerry's speed as a mobile e-mail provider, and that "BlackBerry Enterprise Server, the back-end software that allows the handsets to send and receive e-mail, pushes the e-mail out to the device," while "Microsoft Mobile is a sort of "fast pull" e-mail system, which means that the device has to retrieve the e-mail instead of its being pushed to the device by the server."

Kort also pointed out that "One of the great things about BlackBerry is they have coverage in many major countries. You can go roaming anywhere on business and still access your corporate e-mail."

Dan Tayloy at the Mobile Enterprise Alliance agreed that "BlackBerry's global support is a strong selling point." He also noted that RIM and BlackBerry have "done an excellent job of making a device that works especially well in managing e-mail in a mobile environment. The company holds patents for the thumbwheel and QWERTY keyboard found on the company's devices, and anyone who's used a BlackBerry will agree that it's an excellent device with great performance and battery life."

When it comes to integration with business-critical applications, the BlackBerry struggles. Kort said, "They don't have a huge library of third-party software. Too many people buy a BlackBerry and never get any third-party software. In the minds of most people, it's positioned as an e-mail-only utility."

Avi Greengart at Current Analysis added that "the popularity of the BlackBerry has meant that there are some third-party programs written expressly for it, including Google Maps, but the total number of general productivity and consumer options is minuscule compared to the library of applications for the Palm OS, Microsoft and Symbian."

Taylor concurred saying, "RIM has a well-developed partner community of companies developing applications to run on BlackBerry, but the BlackBerry device cannot support 'thick' applications like those on Symbian and Windows Mobile smartphones."

According to Taylor, "large-footprint client applications are not suited for BlackBerry. With BlackBerry deployments, most of the application is sitting on a server, with a small, lightweight client application on the mobile device. A WIN32 application is too large -- BlackBerry requires something much smaller because much of the computing is done elsewhere."

Taylor said, "The BlackBerry is an upgraded pager that has remained focused on e-mail and long battery life. Adding applications means adding computing power and losing battery life. In order to keep the battery life, the device remains light on the computing power, which means that the network must always be there."

Taylor noted that "Many companies choose to mobilize workers in an occasionally connected model that relies on WLAN connectivity and cradle-based synchronization. Because RIM's sole sales channel for BlackBerry is the wireless operators, the company does not have a way to provide devices or solutions to pure enterprise mobile solutions that do not have an associated carrier service. This is the way companies like Symbol and Intermec remain strong players in enterprise WLAN, RFID, warehouse, shop floor, and logistics applications."

Greengart noted the BlackBerry scroll wheel and user interface (UI) "could be things of genius or great sources of frustration." He said, "The BlackBerry UI is geared toward quick access to e-mail. A scroll wheel is great for moving quickly through multiple messages but is possibly the worst control mechanism for initiating and ending phone calls. RIM has addressed this specific complaint on some recent models by adding dedicated 'Send' and 'End' keys, but the general tilt of the UI remains.

Greengart continued, "Without a touch-screen or five-way navigation pad, scrolling around the calendar, entering appointments, and navigating from application to application are compromised. For frequent users, RIM turns this into a strength by incorporating numerous keyboard/scroll wheel shortcuts. Similar to WordStar or WordPerfect back in the CP/M and DOS days, once you memorize these unnatural behaviors, you can be surprisingly productive -- far more so than if you have to pull everything down from a menu, like in Windows Mobile, or even the often elegant simplicity of the Palm OS layout."

Greengart also though the lack of open operating system could be a plus or a minus. He said, "For IT managers, it means the device can be locked down, without the threat of rogue programs, viruses or productivity-sapping MP3 players,."

Overall, Taylor said, "So the strong pieces of the BlackBerry model [are] excellent mobile e-mail and strong support from the carrier community, [but this] is also a liability as RIM tried to take the device into occasionally connected enterprise computing environments where WLAN connectivity dominates."

Gold added that "BlackBerry is a good choice for e-mail-centric users who also want some application capability. It's a good device for doing e-mail, but it would be a bad choice if what you're looking for is a way to deploy business-critical applications to mobile workers."