RIM ups the mobile mail ante with new features

The latest BlackBerry Connect newsletter came into my mailbox late last week. I've subscribed to this newsletter since my BlackBerry-carrying days of yesteryear. But the pre-release announcement on some of the features available in BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) v4.1 Server Pack (SP5) 5 made me sit up though.

Enhanced features

The latest update to BES will come with a plethora of very progressive features. They are:

  • Support for HTML and Rich Text e-mail
  • The capability for downloading and editing e-mail attachments in their native file formats
  • Free-busy calendar lookup
  • Advanced instant messaging and presence
  • BlackBerry Client for IBM Lotus Connections

Other than the last item, the features listed here require an upgrade of the BlackBerry handheld software to v4.5 or higher - which doesn't exist yet. It's not clear if RIM will be offering the software to edit Microsoft Office files for free, since the ability to do so will be coming from well-known software developer DataViz.

What I find interesting is that BlackBerry users have long clamored for the ability to view HTML and rich text from within their BlackBerry devices, but to no avail. So it comes somewhat as a surprise to see the feature here.

I reckon that RIM is probably responding to competitive pressure from Microsoft, whose version 6 of their Windows Mobile software offers viewing of HTML e-mails when paired with Microsoft Exchange 2007. Ditto to its ability to download files in their native formats, a feature available practically from the start.

Improved manageability

Not content to rest on its laurels, RIM continued to improve upon its superior manageability by introducing the BlackBerry Web Desktop Manager. The idea behind the Web Desktop Manager is to reduce the number of software components that need to be installed on the workstation of end-users - an idea that all system administrators will love.

In fact, Microsoft has also recently incorporated an administration web interface -- albeit a pretty bare-bones one -- into its Exchange 2007 product. Using it, an end-user is able to perform a remote data deletion of their stolen device if it's stolen.

This obviously pales in comparison to the myriad of features that RIM has already been offering via its BES administration interface for years now. However, RIM doesn't have a web interface -- until now -- where end-users can manage their own devices. With the Web Desktop manager, however, I believe RIM has put itself quite a few steps ahead of Microsoft again.

Indeed, the Web Desktop Manager appears to be quite powerful, according to the released specifications. It can be used to configure your BlackBerry Smartphone settings, back up and restore your Smartphone data, update your BlackBerry device software - even install third-party applications. In short, it can possibly replace the need for the desktop software entirely.

In addition, RIM also sought to improve the reliability and uptime of the BES by including a BlackBerry Monitoring Service within the application. It's unlikely that this move will prove popular with companies who specialize in the dedicated monitoring of the key components that form the BlackBerry experience (such as Zenprise), who sell BlackBerry monitoring software, such as Ancoris.

The solution offered by Zenprise will probably prove more comprehensive.

Other features

RIM announced at Lotusphere 2008 other new functionalities - such as the ability to perform remote server-side search for messages. This was not mentioned in the SP5 update. Other features will likely come as part of a future service pack later this year.

The road ahead

Microsoft's Windows Mobile has traditionally been the underdog when it comes to managing the devices in an enterprise setting. To be fair, it has certainly been working hard to rectify its shortcomings.

For example, Windows Mobile 6 finally added enterprise-friendly features such as encryption of data stored on memory cards. It has also been progressively improving on the ease of programming enterprise-type applications for the Windows Mobile platform.

RIM has previously favored a pretty-much single-functionality device that is geared almost exclusively towards the delivery of e-mail. However, they're also changing tactics in recent years, and have been incorporating features such as the presence of memory card slots, the ability to play media files -- with 3.5mm stereo plugs to boot -- and even digital cameras and GPS functionality into their signature BlackBerry Smartphone.

The race is still going fast and furious. What is certain is that RIM, with its 12 million strong user base worldwide as of end 2007, has continued to innovate and thrive despite intense competition from the likes of Microsoft and a half dozen push mail start-ups and wannabes.

It will be an interesting time Microsoft and RIM face off over the next few years.