Yes, welcome to the world of the CrackBerry, as the BlackBerry mobile computing email device is sometimes dubbed, a place where one supplier, Research In Motion (RIM) has long been the only game in town – or did we mean main dealer?

Joking aside, the BlackBerry has been of enormous cultural and IT importance, with its ability to let users access email on the move helping to establish acceptance of the mobile internet in many corners of the business world.

Then all sorts of concerns got raised and it seemed like the system could be shut down. For its part the BlackBerry camp points to the 600 million corporate emails it claims get sent via the devices every year and the fact that 60 per cent of users are now accessing applications other than email as proof that it is in a very strong position, court case or not. But the company has also admitted that its wares “infiltrate from the top” and that the BlackBerry is not always what the IT department would have chosen.

But we seem to have come to something of a crossroads in the BlackBerry story. The recent court case has raised concerns over the long-term viability of the entire system. Though ultimately proven groundless – at least for now – such scare stories have caused more than one CIO to look at what else he might want to provide his connection-hungry mobile users.

"We’ve had two cracks at evaluating handhelds, first the BlackBerry then a Microsoft based-solution but in the end we opted for laptops"

Russell Sommer, group infrastructure manager, The Tetley Group

At the same time the technology market itself has developed, with more than one mobile device and service available out there. Microsoft (with its GoMobile technology) and Nokia are starting to offer aggressive pricing on corporate email systems, promising “a new economics” that a specialist company like RIM cannot hope to match. And who, after all, wants to be dependent in 2006 on just one IT supplier? So if it is time to dump RIM for a new vendor, what else is out there?

First, a reality check. We started off suggesting that Blackberries were so compelling that few organisations could resist them. Well, not all. A sizeable minority just does not see their relevance, arguing limitations on usefulness and functionality make them little better than executive toys. “We’ve had two cracks at evaluating handhelds, first the BlackBerry then a Microsoft based-solution but in the end we opted for laptops,” says Russell Sommer, group infrastructure manager at tea giants The Tetley Group.

“We have struggled to see how we could justify the cost for the handhelds. They seem to be only suitable for accessing your email but what about getting to the SAP system – what can you do once you’ve got the email? You can stand in the airport bar and check your in-box but all that tells you is you’re behind on something you can’t do much about. So it’s much better for us to give people laptops with built-in wireless Ethernet cards which yes, can let you access email but do all the rest too.”

Laptops’ drawbacks

Life beyond the BlackBerry

RIM – the company behind the BlackBerry – was nearly forced out of business this year due to long-running disputes over patents with a smaller firm called NTP. At one point it looked possible a US judge would order the system be suspended until the legal work had been completed but in March RIM made a one-off settlement payment of some $613 million to close the dispute.

At the same time a number of alternatives are coming on stream. A company called Good Technology does something similar but is more successful in the US than Europe. Palm offers its Treo smartphone, 02 its XDA equivalent; along with the Nokia Communicator and phones deploying the Symbian operating system. Indeed mobile operators are increasingly looking at this market, with Vodafone offering the (rebranded) Visto solution and Nokia doing something similar since its purchase of the Intellisync set of operations.

The idea is that more phones will come onto the market that will include push email, instant messaging and text as standard. At least one future scenario is that BlackBerry-like functionality will be built into other devices to the extent that RIM loses its brand.

On the other hand a lot of organisations seem to feel that the laptop in its turn has some challenges. Len Melcer is IT director at Securiplan, a 7,000-strong manned guarding company whose clients include BSkyB and the London Stock Exchange. “We have over 80 field-based managers using laptops with subsidised home broadband who are often out picking up information from clients and staff,” he says. “But lugging a laptop around all the time and waiting for it to boot up can be a problem. So our employees were restricted to laptops and having to update security reports at the end of the working day, which was not very effective and impinged on their time.”

The phone, he adds, remains the primary business communications tool but Blackberries using a third-party business software application offers such staff “a single point of entry to the system in a very convenient way for them to use”. The laptops are redundant – they remain in heavy use, he says – but “many users are happy to leave them at home and use the small BlackBerry to keep in touch while out and about.” Securiplan has calculated that saving just three to five minutes per day this way represents around £300 a year savings per employee.

What it comes down to is that there is definitely more than one way to remove the fur coat from the feline. “RIM had one bright idea; push email to mobile platforms,” says Caroline Gabriel, research director with market commentators Rethink IT.

“And it came out with a very well-designed product to do that which had huge success and mindshare in the US. It’s worth noting that BlackBerry is much bigger there than in Europe. But IT departments are looking for alternatives now as it’s not always the ‘obvious’ choice – in effect, an open systems market is opening up as other entrants are letting users ask what is the right device to access corporate data over a secure connection. Is it a laptop, a smartphone or something else entirely?”

The Palm Treo smartphone route, for instance, is being pursued by Steven Elliot, IT director at Dowlis Corporate Solutions, the second largest supplier of promotional goods in the UK. To satisfy his company’s 35 travelling workers, he says, technology was needed that could let them access information as near to the client’s base as possible. “We wanted client-based licensing not server-based, which you tend to get with Blackberry and which only really suits larger organisations. Plus a lot of the push email technology you get with these devices is pretty generic now. The choice depends on the organisation in the end but we find this is best for us.”

"The XDA smartphone mirrored PC screens back at base and users found them very natural to work with. I don’t think the BlackBerry, no matter how good its access to more than email, could have done that"

Tony Nakhimoff, divisional manager, improving services at the children and families service, Barnet Council

Ease of use

Sometimes organisations have very specific mobile computing needs. Take Tony Nakhimoff, divisional manager, improving services at the children and families service at Barnet Council in London. “As part of our Gershon commitments to cut expenses on an ongoing basis we have been evaluating a mobile solution,” he says. “Equipping social workers with mobile computing devices that offer them constant email and calendaring functionality has been very helpful but a breakthrough came when the devices started offering remote users the same applications interface as they were used to back at base, speeding acceptance and their use. As the XDA smartphone mirrored PC screens back at base users found them very natural to work with. I don’t think the BlackBerry, no matter how good its access to more than email, could have done that.”

Is your organisation ‘addicted’ to BlackBerry? Given that use of such mobile devices seems to augment communications and increases productivity why be concerned?

It is daft to take popular devices off happy users, of course. But the time may come soon when, as until now has not been the case, viable alternatives warrant your attention.