Smartphones

A look at the BlackBerry Push Service for third-party apps

In this high-level overview of RIM's BlackBerry Push Service, Paul Mah discusses what it could mean for third-party applications on the BlackBerry platform.

In this high-level overview of RIM's BlackBerry Push Service, Paul Mah discusses what it could mean for third-party applications on the BlackBerry platform.

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Most smartphone users who have the opportunity to try more than one push email system attest to the comparatively greater reliability of BlackBerry's push email system. In fact, I've written about this as far back as 2006 when I talked about the data efficiencies of the BlackBerry push method compared to Microsoft's Direct Push or Exchange ActiveSync. Incidentally, Apple went on to license Microsoft's technology for the iPhone in order to implement support for Exchange.

Last month, RIM took the wraps off its BlackBerry Push Service for third-party applications, which taps on the BlackBerry infrastructure as a transport. So what does this mean to third-party developers and consumers?

What is BlackBerry Push Service?

In a nutshell, BlackBerry Push Service uses RIM's infrastructure to transmit data from a server to an application on the BlackBerry smartphone. These third-party servers (referred to as content providers in RIM's documentation for developers) send data using XML (WAP PAP 2.2 standard) to the BlackBerry Push Data Server, which will in turn ensure that it is pushed to the correct BlackBerry smartphone. Check out the RIM Web site to see a pictorial representation and to read a more detailed explanation of how push messages are delivered.

To prevent spamming and to alleviate security concerns, content providers must register with RIM to obtain the requisite authentication information needed to route data to the Push Data Servers. Developers must also register the client applications running on the BlackBerry smartphones. (Push data can only be sent to devices running recognized applications.)

Content providers have the option to send data either to individual smartphones (point-to-point), to many users (multicast), or to all the devices registered with the service (broadcast).

The RIM NOC

Unlike many competing technologies, RIM built the message delivery system for its BlackBerry service using a NOC (network operations center) centric infrastructure. This has attracted much criticism in the past from users who are leery of trusting RIM with routing their data and when RIM's NOC experiences the inevitable outage. So far, the issue of security appears adequately addressed by use of encryption between the end-points, while the rise of cloud computing has substantially eroded the argument in favor of hosting servers internally.

BlackBerry Push Essentials and BlackBerry Push Plus

There are two tiers of RIM's push service: BlackBerry Push Essentials and BlackBerry Push Plus.

BlackBerry Push Essentials is free and offers basic functionality for sending up to 8 KB of data at a time to BlackBerry smartphones; however, it doesn't provide any notification about whether a message has been received. In the BlackBerry Push API white paper (PDF), RIM notes that this method should only be used in instances where "If the end user does not receive the message, it doesn't matter."

BlackBerry Push Plus allows various notifications of its push progress to be requested upon sending the message, and it allows the content provider to perform a status query. In addition, BlackBerry Push Plus provides some measure of QoS to ensure message delivery. This service is only free in cases where 100,000 or less push is performed per day. Additional number of push operations beyond 100,000 is chargeable by RIM and with the rates negotiated at the time of registration of your service.

Using the BlackBerry Push Service

Based on RIM's documentation, one possible use of BlackBerry Push Service is for content providers (such as online news services) to perform a real-time push of breaking news stories. Because there is no need to guarantee delivery of these messages, the cost of bringing such a service to BlackBerry smartphones is greatly reduced.

The push architecture ensures that the battery life of smartphones is preserved compared to a system that makes use of static (or pseudo) polling; the architecture also allows for much greater data efficiency. For example, applications such as IM programs that implement BlackBerry Push Service can probably be left running with little or no impact on battery life.

Unlike the Push system adopted by Apple, the size of messages transmitted using BlackBerry Push Service can be up to 8 KB; this can serve to eliminate the need for the BlackBerry to connect back to the content provider for the full message, which improves usability because the required data chunk is in all likelihood already received.

The bottom line

The introduction of the BlackBerry Push Service can hardly be considered novel; developers working on applications for BlackBerry users in the enterprise environment have long been able to access similar functionality via the BlackBerry Mobile Data System (MDS). What RIM has done involves opening up the technology to developers outside of the enterprise network, as well as making the system much more accessible.

A major downside to BlackBerry Push Service is that the push architecture doesn't handle any form of encryption; as such, developers will have to take it upon themselves to incorporate encryption where security of the data being transmitted is desired.

I hope this introduction to BlackBerry Push Service proves to be a good starting point for CIOs or IT managers who are considering a new breed of applications that fully leverages on the strengths of BlackBerry smartphones.

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About

Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.

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