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Sunday, 15 February 2009 05:01

BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0 on track to return on investment

It’s been four years since Research In Motion (RIM) released version 4.0 of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), powering corporate and government handhelds around the world. Now it’s time for BES 5.0, offering a raft of new features.

The BlackBerry is such a popular, even addictive, device that it has been dubbed the “crackberry” among its legions of fans – which count in their number Barack Obama, the 44th and current President of the United States.

I’ve been a BlackBerry user myself since early 2004 and have literally pounded out over twenty five thousand messages on various QWERTY keypads in that time. The usefulness of push e-mail while on the road can’t be underestimated for any modern mobile worker.

In my “day job” I’ve administered BES platforms for Lotus Domino and Microsoft Exchange, even migrating from the former to the latter. The BES 4.0 release particularly brought joy to Domino admins, equalising the playing field giving features previously only available to Exchange admins.

I was one of the first BlackBerry-savvy tech journos. Years ago my pitches on BlackBerry stories were mocked by some publications (not iTWire!) who instead wrote that every new Windows Mobile device was the overused-cliché “BlackBerry killer.” I take some vindication in the fact today the former editors and contributors to those magazines are now BlackBerry users themselves. (And if you're a CIO or CFO, you really ought to read my piece on why the BlackBerry is a superior choice to Windows Mobile and iPhones for corporate use.)

To remind you where we’ve come from, BES 4.0 was noted for making policies a snap to manage and deploy and for brilliantly expanding the wireless capabilities. With BES 4.0 you not only received e-mail over-the-air – always the #1 BlackBerry feature – but your calendar, address book, tasks and memos also synced wirelessly on the field.

More than this, your whole BlackBerry configuration synchronised back to the BES – things like auto-correct settings, the order of the icons on your screen, everything – meaning it became much easier to swap from one device to another, retaining all customisations.

Wireless enterprise activation also came into being meaning for the first time ever the BlackBerry could be turned on, joined to your BES, and always keep your whole range of PIM information up to date without ever once having to be plugged into a computer.

That was a huge improvement. For Lotus users BES 4.0 also played catch up, with the Domino BES being back in version 2.0. For the first time, Domino admins could wirelessly erase a BlackBerry out in the field if it got lost or stolen.

A later significant refinement to BES 4 included HTML e-mail.

Now it’s time for BES 5.0 to shine. Here’s what it offers and when it is tipped to come out.

BES 5.0 has been in the works for some time. It has been code-named Argon, named after the element which is known for being particularly stable. RIM has already deployed it into production with ten customers.

Alan Panezic, RIM’s Vice President of Software Product Management says the feature set in BES 5.0 is going to emphasise the “R” in “Return on investment” (ROI) without increasing the “I.” That’s certainly good news in this current economy.

The first major feature you can expect is downloadable device updates from within the BES. Previously, you needed to scour telco’s websites for their carrier-specific updates. Now you can find them through BES 5.0 itself.

What’s more, the update can be downloaded and pushed out to individual devices or groups of devices, with scheduled installation. Admins can have handhelds upgrade themselves in the early hours on a weekend, for instance.

The efficiency gains here are enormous. Currently, it’s not uncommon for devices to go un-updated for some time. Perhaps this is because the update is just not known to the admins. Or, it’s because the admins and the users just haven’t had the time to meet and perform the update.

Building on this, the next big thing, to my mind, is that most other tasks can also be scheduled in advance, not just device upgrades.

Routine matters that may have required physical assistance can now all be scheduled and performed remotely. This saves both the admin and the user having to make time to meet, and it also means admins can do less out-of-hours work.

Examples include pushing out new applications or services, or modifying existing applications. All these can be scheduled to take place at night, in the morning, on weekends – whatever – without putting anyone out.

A third important new feature is that the BES 5.0 console is now totally web-based. Admins will not need to install software on their laptop, or RDP into a server (or worry about cocking up the MAPI profile by logging in as administrator instead of the blackberry account.)

Instead, BES admins can perform BlackBerry-related tasks from any computer or device on the network with a web browser.

Please read on for more, including RIM’s answer to the iPhone’s AppStore!

BES 5.0 now supports different level of user access. It’s not just the IT team who can administer the BES. Perhaps the thought of anyone else doing it scares you (and rightly so) but it will now be possible to grant select users a degree of access to the BES, over a specific subset of handhelds.

What this means is that you can delegate responsibility for the BlackBerry’s in a particular division or brand to a particular individual. That person can log in to the BES and make all the changes they need to – but without any risk they will affect any other BlackBerry on the network. Their changes will be restricted only to the group for whom they have been given responsibility.

The people who you assign responsibility to may still be technical staff; you could possibly implement a hierarchical level of support for different departments or internal help desk support levels.

I’ve save this one to now, but a fifth new feature is undoubtedly very exciting. I touched on it above when referring to new facilities that let applications be pushed out or modified on schedule.

Yes, it’s the impending BlackBerry Application Storefront (BAS?) which perhaps attempts to reproduce the success of Apple’s AppStore for the iPhone (and iPod Touch.)

RIM will be unveiling the storefront soon, and consequently BES 5.0 will provide a vast range of controls allowing administrators to control just how little or how much their users can do with it.

Users who are particularly troublesome and always getting themselves in trouble may find their freedom on the storefront is reduced, or that applications they install might not have permission to access phone information or GPS location information.

While users may resent such constraints on their freedom, it is important to remember that BlackBerry units in an enterprise have to perform, and that there are costs associated, not to mention responsibilities with respect to personal usage or engaging in harmful or mischievous activities.

While an individual user may be willing to experiment and re-setup their BlackBerry if they trash it, businesses can’t tolerate tinkerers mucking up their device and consuming time to have it repaired. And the finance team won’t be happy to find a charge on the corporate bill because someone purchased a fart app.

Behind the scenes, Panezic says this particular new feature took a lot of work to get going properly. RIM had a lot to consider. Software has to trickle to the device wirelessly in a reliable manner, despite handhelds going in and out of phone coverage, being switched off, being busy, networks having outages and more.

Further, an individual piece of software might have necessary dependencies – which means something else must be downloaded and installed first. Not only that, the device might not even have enough memory for the new software. There were many important matters that RIM worked on to make sure admins have a simple and seamless experience, knowing they can push apps to any number of handhelds with confidence it will just work.

Let me tell you one more. And when’s it coming out?

For administrators, another feature sure to be appreciated is far greater monitoring capabilities. For the first time a BES Monitoring Agent will run on the handheld itself, sending back real-time data and alarms to the server.

Have you been frustrated by BlackBerry activations that just don’t proceed? Or do you have troublesome devices and you just can’t figure out what is going on in their tiny silicon brains?

These are some of the issues BES 5.0 confronts with improvements to the BlackBerry Monitoring Systems, giving vastly improved visibility and controls. There will be better reporting, and meaningful information advising just what’s happening inside the BES and on handhelds.
As for the question we all want to know – when?

RIM has not yet announced a release date, but we know BES 5.0 is already in production with ten early adopters. If history is any guide, it will be unveiled at RIM’s BlackBerry Developer Conference in April, no doubt in conjunction with the application storefront.

The big problem is that the BES isn’t released to individuals but to carriers. The big wait will be between April and when AT&T, Rogers, Telstra, Vodafone and the like finish conducting their own testing and review process.

I’m tipping widespread release for the second quarter of this year, with most carriers having it available before the end of June 2009.

Check out InToMobile for some leaked screenshots (but get a magnifying glass ready.)

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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