The BlackBerry smartphone has become an essential piece of kit for many CIOs and the workforces they serve, not to mention the President of the USA. But the BlackBerry has come under pressure from Apple's innovative iPhone and other smartphones and, as a result, its manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) has been furiously polishing new devices and underlying software.

Meanwhile, BlackBerry users have begun to drive the application agenda in their workplaces - and in some instances have even left their CIOs to play catch up.

RIM argues that it is responding to user-led demand for new and different applications in fields like mapping, banking and social networking, but it also says that it can empower the CIO to take control of mobile estates. This summer, RIM is aiming to gain the edge with the latest version of its enterprise server software, BlackBerry- Enterprise Server (BES) 5, codenamed Argon. As well as linking users to email, voice calls, web sites, and enterprise applications like SAP, RIM says it has improved support for native, web and third-party business applications, and added impressive new features at the front-end.

"With BES 5, we are putting in the infrastructure to allow CIOs to lead the charge into mobile rather than feeling like they are holding the barbarians back at the gate," says Alan Panezic, vice president of software product management at RIM. "One of the things we have focused on has been enabling applications. It's not just about limiting and controlling them and removing them from the device. It's about giving the IT manger more confidence, so they can white-list certain applications if they find, for example, a mapping application enables the business."

Most BES users are currently on the three-year old version 4.16 and may be reluctant to upgrade, but Panezic is optimistic that a focus on management priorities will help.

"We have taken all our engineering talent and the lessons we have learned from being in the market these past 10 years and applied them all to BES 5," he says. "We have introduced a lot of things that are aimed directly at the CIO and the CIO's staff, not forgetting that there are end-user elements in there that will motivate the change."

BES 5 will support higher numbers of users, providing a platform for up to hundreds of thousands of smartphones, RIM claims, and will offer lower-cost telephony through features such as the Mobile Voice System (MVS), which can link into a company's existing phone system. BES 5 also offers easier administration through a web-based console, the firm claims.

The MVS is a server component that allows an organisation to integrate BlackBerry devices with the office PBX server so that the handset can offer similar telephony functions to a desk phone. Although MVS has been around as a technology for a couple of years, RIM expects users to adopt it in larger numbers with the release of BES 5, and the maturing of unified communications technologies.

As well as allowing the BlackBerry smartphone to be used as a mobile desk phone, companies can also make additional cost savings by routing calls over lower-cost data networks.

"It's fantastic to be able to have my desk phone ring at the same time as my BlackBerry, with intelligent call display," says Panezic. "But when you actually implement the system you realise that you are deferring costs from your telephony minutes budget and providing a higher degree of service at a lower cost."

MVS will integrate into unified communications systems from the likes of Cisco, Microsoft, Nortel and IBM, although it will also compete with these to some extent.

One company that recently trialled MVS is Canada-based JAM Industries, which distributes musical instruments and equipment. JAM's MIS director Natan Glaich said that his company had used MVS to drastically lower phone costs, especially for international travellers who use voice functions on BlackBerry smartphones.

MVS has cost JAM about £21,000 to implement and run, but the firm made its return on investment in three months of use by 15 workers. It eventually aims to have 50 users on the MVS system.

Glaich says that MVS works in conjunction with BES to vastly reduce business call charges, especially for frequent travellers. When BlackBerry users make their calls around the world, the voice information is carried over the BlackBerry's data channel and through JAM's PBX voice switch, which is provided by Cisco. He adds that before using MVS a typical week-long trip to London by one worker to other company sites might have resulted in over £700 in mobile phone call costs. However, MVS has meant that cost has almost disappeared.

JAM previously trialled phones that used voice over Wi-Fi, but abandoned the project because it required an additional handset. Also, MVS doesn't support Wi-Fi, despite the fact that many BlackBerry devices do offer it.

Admin additions

Another new feature likely to appeal to CIOs is the BlackBerry Administration Service, a management console that will allow IT managers to schedule tasks in advance, simplify policy management, and use roles-based access. IT departments will have the ability to monitor over-the-air BlackBerry activations and software updates. "The IT department should not have to touch the end-user device," Panezic says, adding that wireless updates will also mean users will not be required to attach their BlackBerry to a desktop - a change that, arguably, improves security.

At the moment, it is possible for users to activate and update a device wirelessly but IT managers cannot follow the process to ensure that it happens, or to identify problems as they occur. Also, regarding activations, IT managers will have more control over when a deployment is carried out, and could for example set up a deployment on a weekday which would take effect on the weekend. BES 5 also provides automatic failover capabilities, so if a server fails, the system knows which server to activate as the failover server. At the moment, this is a manual process.

In terms of security, RIM will continue to offer 256-bit encryption of data as it is sent over the air and as the data is stored on a BlackBerry device. IT administrators will also continue to have the ability to wirelessly lock or wipe data off a device that has been lost by a user, so that its content cannot be seen by unauthorised users. Argon will also be the "easiest upgrade ever" for IT teams, according to Panezic.

Mobile platform vendors like RIM have had to stay ahead of the technology curve, and this has meant working with users and vendors to resolve technical limitations. Panezic says there are integration improvements in BES 5 for enterprise applications from the likes of SAP, to make the "on-device experience" better. BES 5 will also feature new web service APIs that will make it easier for vendors and application developers to link applications into BlackBerry administration tools.

"Our partners are saying, look, the SAP team may want administrative control and automation over mobilising components of SAP, but they are not going to hand that over to the mobility team. So give us a set of APIs and roles-based administrative control, to allow us to take our political or administrative structure into account with your BlackBerries," says Panezic.

Virtual enhancements

Support for virtualisation is also high on the agenda for BES 5, which has improved VMware support. RIM had already optimised the code for BES 4.16 for VMware, and version 5 will continue to be optimised for the virtual infrastructure.

RIM is also focusing on improving the BlackBerry's support for web-based enterprise applications, and this is a huge area of research and development.

JavaScript support has been criticised in the past, with some browser applications running very slowly. So RIM has also been working to improve JavaScript support as web-based programs grow in popularity.

"We are looking at browser performance in general with a focus on JavaScript as it is used for input validation. It's much cheaper to check input here in the browser than ‘roundtrip' it and find out the data's wrong. JavaScript is also used for dynamic content generation, and we are looking to improve across the board how fast Java-Script is on the device, as well as rounding off support for things like cascading style sheets, document object models, and having additional Dynamic HTML support. We are as focused on the web experience as an application environment as we are to the Java rich client. It is our stated goal to have those two things as peers. Therefore, I can envisage a web application like a gadget or a gear being richly incorporated onto the BlackBerry device."

In fact, at the latest BlackBerry conference, RIM signalled this move to support web applications more deeply by announcing support for Google Gears.

"That mandates things like SQL Lite support on the device, and a whole range of integration of gadgets and their APIs," says Panezic. "It's a very large area of investment for us. When we look at the developer community, the one that is growing the quickest is web developers. For us, it's about embracing that community and arming them with an appropriate tool chain to leverage the BlackBerry as an adequate target for their creativity."

One way BlackBerry hopes to do this is through its Application Storefront, which was launched in March. With 20 million global BlackBerry users, RIM hopes the Apple iStore-like Application Storefront will increase its market share. Application Storefront allows Blackberry application developers to submit their applications, set their own prices, and retain 80 per cent of the revenue generated from their apps.

"We have some high hopes for the Storefront," says Panezic. "It's about creating a wonderful economic system and channel to market for our partners, some of whom have done incredibly well because they have partnered with us and with some of the operators throughout the world. We want people developing things that we haven't specifically intended. End users are evolving very quickly what they expect a smartphone to be able to do. Today they use it as a phone, tomorrow they are browsing, the day after they need a cellphone that will allow them to do social networking. And tomorrow it will be something different. So what the application store is all about from an end-user perspective is helping them understand the art of the possible. They are always looking for new things."

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