Read and send email wherever you are

The ability to instantly access and respond to corporate email is essential for mobile professionals. One solution is Research In Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry wireless email solution. The Exchange Edition provides two-way wireless access to your Microsoft Exchange Server system (RIM expects to make a Lotus Notes edition available soon). The BlackBerry solution lets you use your existing email address to send and receive email from a RIM wireless handheld device over a third-party wireless network.

RIM's enterprise solution consists of BlackBerry Enterprise Server Software, BlackBerry Desktop Software, a handheld wireless device, and a docking cradle. The server software includes server files and extension files, which reside on a server that RIM refers to as the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). The desktop software resides on the user's desktop system and manages email, calendar, and contact-data synchronization. The desktop software includes a backup utility and a way to upload custom applications. The server software runs on Windows 2000 Server and Windows NT Server and supports Exchange Server 5.0 and later. BlackBerry Desktop Software supports Win2K, NT, and Windows 9x.

The Test Platform

To test the BlackBerry server software, I chose a server with a 333MHz Pentium II processor and 128MB of RAM; the system was running Win2K Advanced Server. To test the desktop software, I used a PC running Win2K Professional. My Exchange server, which had two 550MHz Pentium III processors and 128MB of RAM, ran Win2K AS and Exchange Server 5.5, Enterprise Edition (Exchange 5.5/E), with Service Pack 3 (SP3). Although RIM's BlackBerry solution can accommodate multiple mail servers and BES servers, RIM recommends no more than 500 users per BES.

The BES communicates with RIM's wireless-network infrastructure through a direct TCP/IP connection, and the user's private encryption keys reside in the user's message store and on the user's handheld device. Consequently, you might need to create a port in your firewall. The BES always initiates the TCP/IP connection and uses a three-way handshake to authenticate it. Some security experts would argue that any such firewall port creates a vulnerability, but I felt adequately reassured that BlackBerry's outbound port doesn't introduce a significant threat.


Before installing the BlackBerry software, I created a new user, BlackBerryAdmin. To avoid any potential permissions issues, I made BlackBerryAdmin a member of the Domain Admins group. As the BlackBerry Enterprise Server Software Installation and Getting Started Guide instructed, I granted BlackBerryAdmin the right to log on as a service. I used Microsoft Exchange Administrator to assign the Exchange Server Service Account Admin. role to the BlackBerryAdmin account for both the site object and the site object's Configuration container.

blackberryThe BES stores configuration information in an Exchange mailbox. I created a new mailbox and assigned the BlackBerryAdmin account to serve as the mailbox's Primary Windows NT Account. I created a Messaging API (MAPI) profile on the BES so that it could connect to the Exchange mailbox. I added Exchange Server to the profile and entered the name of the test Exchange server and the new mailbox. Then, I was ready to launch the BES setup utility.

Installing the BlackBerry Software

When I first launched the BlackBerry Enterprise Server Setup program and selected Install Products, I clicked Install Microsoft Exchange Extensions to install the BlackBerry extension files. The extension files expand Exchange Administrator by adding the BlackBerry Server service to the configuration container and adding a tab to each user's mailbox Properties page, as Figure 1 shows.

I launched the BES setup utility again and clicked Install BlackBerry Enterprise Server Files. I provided the MAPI profile name and a name for Exchange Server to use to identify the BES. Installing the server files took only a few minutes.

Next, I configured the BlackBerry Server service. From Exchange Administrator's Configuration container, I double-clicked the BlackBerry Servers configuration object, clicked Add Server, and entered information about the new BES. I also provided the Server Routing Protocol (SRP) Identifier and Authentication Key for the BES to use to establish the TCP/IP connection to the wireless network.

After configuring the BlackBerry configuration object, I started the BlackBerry Server service and set up a couple of Exchange user accounts. To add each user to the BES, I opened the user's Exchange mailbox and selected the BlackBerry tab. I clicked Add to Server and supplied the appropriate BES name and the PIN for the user's handheld in response to the prompt.

Finally, I loaded the desktop software. Within seconds, the installation program created shortcuts to the BlackBerry desktop management utilities. I attached a synchronization cradle to a communications port on my PC and cradled the handheld wireless device. When I opened the Desktop Manager, the software asked me to set the serial port settings, which I opted to let the software detect. The software then asked me to help generate an encryption key by moving my mouse. The setup utility detected that the handheld's OS wasn't current and offered to upload the latest version from the BlackBerry Desktop Software CD-ROM. I accepted, and the setup utility installed the new OS with SP2.

Using the Handhelds

I tested two RIM handheld devices. The RIM 957 Wireless Handheld is roughly the size of a Palm V and uses a rechargeable lithium ion cell. This device includes 5MB of flash memory for applications and email and provides a large (1 1/8" square) monochrome LCD display. The RIM 950 Wireless Handheld is the size of a pager and can function as one if you buy RIM's optional paging service. The RIM 950 provides 4MB of flash memory, has a much smaller screen than the RIM 957, and uses one AA alkaline battery. Both devices feature QWERTY keyboards and clicking thumbwheels that provide mouselike functionality. The handhelds include standard calendar, address book, alarm clock, calculator, task list, and memo pad applications. You can synchronize the task list, address book, and calendar entries with your Exchange mailbox data.

Both handheld models offer two screen configurations. The RIM 957 can display either 15 or 19 lines of text, each of which has room for approximately 35 proportional characters. The RIM 950 can display either 6 or 8 lines of about 29 characters. The backlit screens are readable under low-light conditions, but because the keys aren't backlit, the devices aren't as useable in the dark as they could be.

After I updated the BlackBerry Desktop Software, the software redirected my incoming email to the handheld (I could also access the email from my desktop). The BES continually monitored my message store and automatically uploaded my new messages to the handheld. Checking my corporate message store was as simple as removing the device from its holster and checking the screen. I didn't need to load an application or enter a URL to check my mail, and I didn't need to bother with a secondary email account. When I set the handheld's tone or vibrate option, the device instantly alerted me to incoming email.

Sending messages was equally convenient. I simply typed the message, clicked the thumbwheel, and chose Send Message. The small QWERTY keyboard is designed for your thumbs and is easy to use. I also liked the clicking thumbwheel, which let me quickly navigate the logically sequenced menus.

My messages traveled from the handheld through the wireless service to the BES. From there, the messages went to my mail store, which sent them on to their destinations. The message delivery speed was impressive. Regardless of whether I was sending or receiving, messages typically arrived within about 3 minutes, with most arriving within 60 seconds. This consistently rapid delivery is in part a function of the product's message handling. The mail redirector pushes only the first 2KB of a new message to the handheld. When a message exceeds 2KB, you can retrieve the remainder of the message in 2KB segments up to a maximum size of 32KB per message.

This transfer method also reduces the potential for swamping the device. With the standard complement of applications, the RIM 957 still has more than 3MB of flash memory available for storing messages and other text entries. After you fill the available storage space, new messages replace the oldest stored messages. However, BlackBerry never overwrites manually saved messages.

My only real complaint about the handhelds is that some error and alert messages flash by so quickly that they are impossible to read. Although I took the vendor's advice and downloaded SP3, this problem persisted.

The handhelds' attachment handling would benefit from additional functionality. When you use the device to receive a message that has an attachment, the message includes only the attachment's title—you can't view the attachment even in a modified form. However, when I forwarded such messages from the handheld, the attachment accompanied the message to its new destination. Third parties offer services that minimize the attachment problem but at an additional monthly cost. For example, for $5.95 per month per user you can forward Portable Document Format (PDF), Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, or Microsoft PowerPoint attachments to Paradigm4's E-Attach4 service, which converts them to a format that the RIM handheld can read and returns them to the user.

After a few days of flawless transmission, an encryption error on the handheld forced me to cradle the device so that the desktop software could generate a new encryption key. But this early glitch was followed by weeks of trouble-free transmission. Both the RIM 957 and RIM 950 provided several weeks of round-the-clock service before I had to recharge or replace the batteries.

BlackBerry Utilities

BlackBerry Desktop Software includes plenty of utilities and is straightforward and flexible. For example, when I configured the synchronization settings for my Microsoft Outlook calendar, the software presented five options for the action the software should take if a conflict occurred between the handheld and the desktop. The software also provided statistics about messages received, sent, and pending to the handheld as well as connectivity and transaction information, such as the time of last contact and the result of the last transaction.

The BES software also includes some useful utilities. The BESMonitor and BESAlert utilities keep an administrator informed about the status of the BES server and the SRP connection. You can configure BESAlert to send copies of critical events when the Event Log Service logs them. I configured BES to send me an email message whenever I started the BlackBerry Server service, and the feature worked every time.

RIM's enterprise solution includes the IT Policy Manager tool, which lets you create and distribute policies for handheld users. You use a scrambled policy file to enforce user policies such as password requirements and the minimum security timeout, which requires the user to enter a password after a specified idle time. IT Policy Manager lets you require the user to perform desktop functions such as synchronization and scheduled backups. IT Policy Manager's documentation was thin, but with coaching from BlackBerry tech support, I created a scrambled policy file and shared it to users' desktops. Implementing the policy file requires you to modify the current user's registry key directory, but you can use a logon script to skirt this administrative overhead.

A Secure Solution

Perhaps the product's greatest strength is security. The BlackBerry solution uses Triple Data Encryption Standard (3DES) encryption and private encryption keys. The user generates the encryption keys, which reside only on the handheld and at the user's message store. Because the product never decrypts data between the handheld and the user's email redirector, the BlackBerry Wireless Email Service merely acts as a link between the handheld and the redirector. The result is strong end-to-end encryption that should meet the security demands of corporate environments.

BlackBerry wireless email uses the BellSouth Wireless Data network in the United States and Rogers AT&T Wireless' network in Canada. RIM has announced plans to offer coverage in Europe through British Telecommunications. Using the BellSouth Wireless Data network, I tested coverage in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and in northern Colorado and found in-building coverage to be quite good.

Although BlackBerry has fewer available third-party applications than do Palm and Pocket PC handhelds, BlackBerry offers single-mailbox convenience and realtime notification right out of the box. The product's keyboard is also significantly better than Palm and Pocket PC products'. Intelligently designed menus and keyboard logic and the excellent display make the devices a pleasure to use. BlackBerry's end-to-end encryption is also impressive. For those who need a handheld device primarily for wireless email, I highly recommend BlackBerry.

Contact: Research In Motion * 519-888-7465 or
Price: $2999 for BlackBerry Enterprise Server Software, Exchange Edition, with 20 client licenses; $399 for the RIM 950 Wireless Handheld and $499 for the RIM 957 Wireless Handheld, both with BlackBerry Desktop Software; BlackBerry flat-rate Wireless Email Service starts at $39.99 per month
Decision Summary
Pros: Central administration; end-to-end message encryption; realtime notification of incoming messages; can use existing email address and mailbox; good keyboard design; large, bright display on the RIM 957 Wireless Handheld
Cons: Few third-party applications are available
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