Mobile platforms: BlackBerry -- Mobile e-mail's 'gold standard'

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform to help you choose the one that's right for your company. In Part 1 we examine BlackBerry, one of the most popular mobile platforms. Experts say it's great for mobile e-mail, but its functionality as an application device needs some fine-tuning.

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy to mobilize the workforce. There's BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian, Linux, and J2ME. How do they choose? Which platform performs which functions well, and where do they fall short?

We at SearchMobileComputing.com want to make that choice a little easier. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform. On the fourth Wednesday of each month, we'll present the pluses and minuses of a different platform. With this series of stories, we hope to help you choose the platform that's right for your company and help you cast aside those that may not fit your needs.

Part 1: BlackBerry. BlackBerry is among the most popular mobile platforms. Experts say it's great for mobile e-mail, but its functionality as an application device needs some fine-tuning.

Unless you've lived under a rock for the past few years, you know all about BlackBerry.

Series at a glance

On the fourth Wednesday of every month, SearchMobileComputing.com will feature a different mobile platform, and our panel of experts will discuss its pluses and minuses. Here's what to expect:

Wednesday, May 24: BlackBerry

Wednesday, June 28: Windows Mobile

Wednesday, July 26: Palm OS

Wednesday, August 23: Symbian

Wednesday, September 27: Linux

Wednesday, October 25: J2ME

You know it's that mobile platform that shoots e-mail to you instead of making you go fetch. You know that it's said to be highly addictive, earning it the nickname "CrackBerry." And you've undoubtedly recently read that overuse of the devices can damage your thumbs, prompting doctors to start diagnosing "BlackBerry thumb."

When it comes to mobile platforms or operating systems, BlackBerry sits pretty high on the mountain, mostly because of its mobile e-mail capabilities. In a recent informal poll on SearchMobileComputing.com, 15% of respondents said BlackBerry is the most prevalent mobile platform in their organization. BlackBerry ranked third overall, coming in behind Palm OS at 36% and Windows Mobile at 26%.

"It's been kind of the gold standard for mobile e-mail," said Gartner Inc.'s Todd Kort.

Right now, BlackBerry's closest competitor in the mobile e-mail space is GoodLink, followed by Nokia/Intellisync. Microsoft Mobile could catch up, but it needs another year or so of work.

Jack Gold, principal and founder of J.Gold Associates, said 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.

The Good

Experts agree that BlackBerry, made by Canadian company Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), has its share of solid features. 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.

"Everyone else falls down in at least one of those categories," Kort said, referring to other mobile platforms and operating systems such as Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian.

As a mobile e-mail provider, BlackBerry is fast, Kort said. 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. Microsoft Mobile, he said, 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.

BlackBerry also has better support for e-mail attachments than its competitors. Because the device takes breaks and nearly shuts down momentarily between keystrokes, battery life is extended, reducing consumption.

BlackBerry has also grown in worldwide use, meaning it can be supported in pretty much any major country and the devices can travel and not lose functionality.

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

Dan Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, agreed that BlackBerry's global support is a strong selling point.

Taylor 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."

The Bad

While BlackBerry is good at pushing mobile e-mail, there are still some areas where the platform lags. Most experts are quick to point out that BlackBerry is still struggling to make its name as a useful tool to access business-critical applications.

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.
Jack Gold
Principal & FounderJ.Gold Associates
"They don't have a huge library of third-party software," Kort said. "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 of 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."

Some applications available on Palm OS and Windows Mobile, but not on BlackBerry, include GPS navigation kits, Physician's Desk Reference, games, weight-loss programs, and Bible study, Greengart said.

Taylor agreed: "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. "The BlackBerry is an upgraded pager that has remained focused on e-mail and long battery life," Taylor said. "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." BlackBerry generally isn't meant to work offline, he added.

BlackBerry also can fall short in synchronized, non-real-time environments, Taylor said, because it is linked directly to a set of carrier services for mobile data.

"Many companies choose to mobilize workers in an occasionally connected model that relies on WLAN connectivity and cradle-based synchronization," Taylor said. "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."

Elsewhere, Kort said, BlackBerry doesn't offer much by way of memory and storage, which introduces a dilemma. BlackBerry could boost its storage and memory capabilities and take them off the network, but that would chop down battery life.

The Indifferent

Depending on how you look at it, the BlackBerry scroll wheel and user interface (UI) could be things of genius or great sources of frustration, Greengart said.

"The BlackBerry UI is geared toward quick access to e-mail," he said. "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.

More on mobile e-mail

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"Without a touch-screen or five-way navigation pad, scrolling around the calendar, entering appointments, and navigating from application to application are compromised," Greengart continued. "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."

Another good-or-bad-depending-on-how-you-look-at-it feature of BlackBerry is that it doesn't actually have an open operating system; instead, it uses a Java environment. According to Greengart, that can be a plus or a minus.

"For IT managers, it means the device can be locked down, without the threat of rogue programs, viruses or productivity-sapping MP3 players," he said. Some users may miss out on certain features and functions, however, because they are not Java supported.

The Conclusion

Overall, experts agreed that a BlackBerry deployment is optimal for a large-scale deployment in an e-mail-centric business. For smaller deployments or deployments that require access to several thick applications, however, another platform may be needed.

"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," Taylor said.

Gold added that BlackBerry is good for access to some of the "simpler" applications -- such as contact list, time management, and field force applications -- but the somewhat weak screen resolution may hinder the use of some applications, especially those with rich GUIs.

"BlackBerry is a good choice for e-mail-centric users who also want some application capability," Gold said. "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."

This article originally appeared on SearchMobileComputing.com.

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