BlackBerry against the world

Wireless messaging has attained mission-critical status, but agencies are wise to consider multiple platforms

Users want the ability to make the BlackBerry work like their desktop computer. Not only e-mail, but intranet access, attachments, calendars, tasks, memos, etc.'Robert Otto, Postal Service

No doubt about it, Research in Motion came up with a winner when it introduced its BlackBerry wireless handheld. Government users love it. But are they wearing blinders when it comes to mobile messaging?

'The BlackBerry was a category creator,' said Randy Siegel, enterprise mobility solution specialist in Microsoft Corp.'s U.S. public sector group. 'It's an icon of 21st century communications.'

The category RIM created was an integrated hardware-software platform that at the time did one thing and did it well: provide wireless access to enterprise e-mail.
But now others are moving into the field, bringing with them a choice of platforms and services, and spurring a convergence of communications and functionality that spans a variety of handheld devices. And after a spring scare during which an appellate court nearly forced a shutdown of BlackBerry service for patent violations (federal users were to be exempt, but how that would be accomplished was never entirely clear), a little variety might be exactly what agencies need to ensure their wireless messaging applications always run.

'There is going to be a plethora of devices that are very useful,' said David Mendez, chief strategy officer for Visto Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif., which provides mobile data access software to carriers. 'None of these is a BlackBerry killer. All of them together are.' [Visto has lawsuits pending against RIM and others.]

Of course, RIM doesn't plan to rest on its laurels.

Common look and feel

More than 70 companies are developing front- and back-end applications and interfaces using Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system, Siegel said. Services are available on a variety of multipurpose handheld devices, all with a common look and feel.

Choice is all well and good, said RIM senior product manager David Heit. But organizations want to standardize on a common platform.

'To open the door to any device under the sun creates a support nightmare,' Heit said. The BlackBerry offers a simple, secure, consistent experience, available worldwide from most carriers. 'The reason we have been vertically integrated since the beginning is the strength of the experience.'

One thing everyone agrees on is that the role of handheld computing is growing and changing, with more organizations using the devices to access more resources. BlackBerry is currently the undisputed leader, but that doesn't deter companies from jockeying for position in IT shops.

'There are about 6 million mobile e-mail users in the world and 5 million of them are on BlackBerrys,' Mendez said. 'I don't care about the 5 million. I want the next 500 million.'

Experts in mobile computing and communications describe wireless handhelds in three phases. The first was mobile access to e-mail.

'E-mail is pretty mature and pretty buttoned up,' said Dave Rensin, CEO of Reality Mobile LLC of Herndon, Va. Reality Mobile consults on wireless deployments.

The next phase has been integrating calendars, messaging and voice communications into a single handheld device. The current generation of smart phones, such as the Motorola Q and Palm Treo, has tackled that frontier.

The remaining challenge, say experts, is to provide fuller access to network data and applications on the same device that provides converged communications.

Ahead of the curve

Government was an early adopter of the BlackBerry and it remains ahead of the curve in handheld computing, industry observers say. The Census Bureau wants to give its field workers live handheld database access for retrieving and reporting data. The Air Force is using handhelds for command, control and communications functions in its flight line operations. Oregon's Portland VA Medical Center is using handheld devices to let doctors remotely monitor routine self-tests by diabetics. In the Defense Department, the Battlefield Medical Information System Telemedicine application runs on Windows Mobile and Hewlett-Packard iPAQs to give medics battlefield access to records.

It's this emerging market that is still up for grabs.

As agencies want wireless access to more than just e-mail, they could approach the platform choice anew.

Many observers compare competition between the BlackBerry and the Windows Mobile platforms to that between the Mac and PC in desktop computing. Apple, like RIM, created a market with a popular, integrated hardware-software platform that was simple to use. Microsoft exploited that market with an operating system that runs on hardware from a variety of manufacturers, turning computers into commodities.

Assuming that analogy, the current state of handheld computing is about where desktop computing was in the age of the 386 processor, said Microsoft's Siegel.

'We're just at the beginning of it,' he said. 'There is a huge greenfield opportunity for everyone.'

Who has the advantage? RIM has added voice and instant messaging to its BlackBerrys and is making more network resources available through the devices. The BlackBerry is going from a tactical tool to a strategic technology, said RIM's Heit.

'This tool is here to stay and will grow with the organization,' he said.

But how much of the market it will be able to command is not clear. Limiting choices to an integrated hardware-software platform could limit access to emerging applications.

Although government has embraced the BlackBerry, Microsoft has a strong government presence on the server side. Most agencies are already using its operating systems and office productivity applications.

'It makes a lot of sense to leverage these assets and get the most you can out of the discount,' Siegel said.

Both have fans

Both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile have their adherents. The Postal Service has been using BlackBerry for more than five years and stuck with the device when it recently upgraded its messaging system.

USPS CTO Robert L. Otto originally bought five of the devices to test after reading about them in 2000.

'They were so simplistic that we thought they might be toys rather than enterprise tools,' he said.

But he quickly decided their simplicity and low cost would make them useful tools. They fit into USPS' three guiding principles for IT: standardize everything, centralize everything and simplify everything.

The original units were deployed in 2001 and USPS now has 6,100 BlackBerry users.
'E-mail is our number one application,' Otto said. E-mail volume in the agency has gone from 700,000 messages a day in 2001 to 8.5 million a day now.

But as the years have passed, USPS has come to look at its mobile platform differently. The second phase of the USPS BlackBerry implementation was to move beyond simple e-mail.

'Users want the ability to make the BlackBerry work like their desktop computer,' Otto said. 'Not only e-mail, but intranet access, attachments, calendars, tasks, memos, etc.'

But the IT department didn't anticipate the third and current phase: demand for application access.

'That didn't come to us initially,' Otto said. 'When we started, everybody wanted e-mail. We didn't think about applications up front.'

By 2005 the devices were going on five years old and had already paid for themselves. But the memory installed in the devices was not adequate to support the applications that users demanded.

'We had four killer applications that everyone wanted' on their BlackBerrys, Otto said. Those apps were eTravel, which allows a manager to approve travel vouchers; eAccess, for provisioning of end users' IT accounts; eBuy, for approving purchase requests; and Pems, the continuity-of-operations system that provides key staff with emergency management plans and communications.

Moving beyond wireless e-mail could have meant moving beyond BlackBerry, but USPS decided to stick with the RIM platform throughout the upgrade because the devices worked and customers liked them'not that the agency didn't consider Windows Mobile for its needs.

'We are customer-focused here,' Otto said. The additional functionality of an iPAQ running Windows Mobile was not worth the additional $200 per device. 'Good enough is good enough.'

USPS maintains 650 applications in two large data centers, but many of them require no remote access or are not widely used. Therefore they are not candidates for porting to handhelds, Otto said. 'I only see us adding four or five more' to the BlackBerry, he said. USPS is currently considering a short list of 10 applications.

Not fans of the simple life

But BlackBerry's simplicity doesn't win everyone over. Flexibility and choice were paramount when the District of Columbia selected a service for its Citywide Messaging System in 2002.

'The industry moves too quickly, so whatever device comes out today doesn't last very long,' said Rob Mancini, who manages the system.

Workers' familiarity with the Microsoft Outlook e-mail system was also a consideration. 'We wanted the user experience to be as much like the desktop interface as possible,' Mancini said. 'Does it look like Outlook? Does it feel like Outlook?'

The GoodLink system from Good Technology Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., provided that familiarity. About 7 percent of the District's workforce, more than 1,300 persons, use the GoodLink system on handhelds from a variety of manufacturers, all running Windows Mobile.

GoodLink also supports the Palm and Symbian mobile operating systems. The company was the only one that met 35 feature requirements for the District's remote e-mail service, including ease of use, choice of end-user devices, high reliability, strong security and cost-effective remote administration. So far the system is used primarily for e-mail access, but Mancini said it would be expanded to include instant messaging.

'IM is a perfect fit for handhelds,' he said. 'I've been dying to get it for two-and-a-half years, and we're finally going to get it.'

Mancini said he has nothing against BlackBerry. There were city employees using the devices before the District standardized on GoodLink and they still are used for limited purposes such as database lookups, he said. Moreover, Windows-enabled devices cost more than BlackBerrys. But for the District, BlackBerry did not work as well or as seamlessly as the Goodlink platform.

And then there was the threat this year of a BlackBerry shutdown when RIM was accused of patent infringement.

The case was settled without a shutdown, but 'it was a good position for us to be in,' Mancini said. 'But I hated to see that happen to RIM.'

Who will win the battle for handheld communications? Reality Mobile's Rensin is firmly in the Windows camp.

'I think Microsoft is going to own that market,' he said. 'Unless RIM can come out with something really compelling on the hardware level, I don't see how they exist five years from now.'

But most observers, even Microsoft, think there will be room in the market for both.

The costs aren't high

Siegel said cost-of-entry into mobile services would not be a barrier for government. Many of Microsoft's government customers already can enable mobile services on their Microsoft servers for free, so the primary cost of a new wireless service would be the purchase of the end-user devices.

'There could be additional administrative costs for managing both mobile and desktop e-mail and applications,' he said. 'It is a very soft cost that is hard to quantify.'

Although few expect BlackBerry to disappear, many believe RIM may well have to play catch-up to match the functionality and economies of emerging products and services. That process of catching up is already under way, Heit said. He acknowledged that RIM has been slow to adopt some technologies.

For example, he said, 'We were quite reserved on Bluetooth until we were sure the security standards were evolved.' The same goes for WiFi. 'Technology is a two-edged sword,' Heit said, with risks in adopting it early.

The fact is, no one really knows what the next big thing in wireless communications will be. Rensin said that because of the limitations of the small form factor, he expects devices will continue to be used for accessing rather than creating or inputting data.

'These are still not great input devices, generally,' he said. 'It's sort of a waste because you essentially have a PC in your pocket.'

Heit said the next big thing in mobile computing could be location and presence-based capabilities. But just what business applications these types of services will involve is not yet clear. 'I'm waiting now for the business demand,' he said.

In the meantime, RIM is experimenting with cutting back on some functionality. An enterprise server that does not include e-mail is in beta testing now. Many field workers, such as police or maintenance staff, want remote access to data but do not routinely use e-mail on the job, Heit said.

'It allows us to reach more segments without the overhead of an e-mail account,' he said. 'From the beta participation, the interest in this is really great.'

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