Research in Motion Ltd. is surrounded by challenges. On one side are its loyal users who want to maintain the BlackBerry experience with its enterprise-grade security. On the other, the legions of non-users and former users who want more consumer-like features in their smartphones. And bringing up the rear is corporate IT, who needs to be able to manage all of the devices that are making their way through the doors, whatever they are.
The company, which changed its name to BlackBerry, couldn't satisfy everyone in its previous incarnation. Its proprietary back-end systems prevented agile response to trends, as did its very businesslike devices and lack of compatibility with industry standards. So, it went back to basics.
"We worked to understand the needs of business, from SMB to multinational," said RIM chief operating office Kristian Tear. The goal: seamless, secure, and easy access to enterprise content, while accepting that BYOD is a fact of life and accommodating it.
One big shift was a move away from the proprietary synchronization mechanism for its business-oriented BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to the more industry standard ActiveSync. This allows BES to manage not only BlackBerry devices, but iOS and Android phones as well.
Enterprise customers who have not yet upgraded to BES 10 do face some issues with BlackBerry 10 devices, however. BlackBerry 10 devices do not sync Outlook tasks and notes unless the user is connecting to BES 10. While models running BlackBerry OS 7 and below can be connected to a PC via USB and sync directly with Microsoft Outlook's PIM (personal information manager, which includes calendar, contacts, notes and tasks), BlackBerry 10 can only sync calendar and contacts over a direct connection.
Quibbles about the BlackBerry Z10 device itself were few and far between among attendees at company's annual user conference in Orlando last month (the newer Q10, with its QWERTY keyboard, arrives on some U.S. carriers this week). Confusion about the user interface was common, but to be expected, said Krista Napier, senior analyst and tracker team lead, mobility, at IDC Canada. "The new BB 10 devices have a new user interface, which some customers need time to get used to, or find challenging," she noted. "On the positive side, the keyboard on the Q10 will be attractive to those business users and long-time BB fans who spend a lot of their time typing e-mails and text messages, and the browser and resolution provide an improved experience compared to the older models."
Special education teacher's aide Chris Esparza, a long-time BlackBerry user, is comfortable with the new interface, but had a different complaint about the infrastructure behind the devices. "I miss BIS", he said.
BIS, or BlackBerry Internet Service, sits between the device and the Internet for pre-BlackBerry 10 devices not managed by a BES, providing services such as push email, encryption, mail filtering, and data compression between the BIS and the device, much as BES does for enterprise users. For BlackBerry 10, BIS has been eliminated; devices connect directly to the Internet, eliminating those benefits for consumers and small businesses. One consequence: higher data usage.
These design decisions were all deliberate, according to RIM's director of handheld software product management, Michael Clewley. "The one issue we have with BIS is that it's a proprietary mail format. As part of the move to BlackBerry 10, we wanted to adopt standards-based technologies, not just in e-mail but across the board," he said, adding that with proprietary technology, it's difficult to maintain feature parity with other, standards-based products. If a vendor such as Google enhances its product, there is a lag before update appears for BlackBerry users while the proprietary technology catches up.
He dismissed concerns about higher data usage. "The world has basically told us, through moves to other platforms, that data was not one of the things they were concerned about," he noted, adding that today's high-speed networks can handle the throughput, and that carriers are now offering larger data plans sufficient for the usage. He did acknowledge, however, that roaming charges can still be a problem.
Direct synchronization of Outlook PIM data using BlackBerry Link, the BlackBerry 10 desktop program, will continue to be limited to calendar and contacts, Mr. Clewley said. There is no immediate plan to add tasks and notes. However, he pointed out, the new BlackBerry Remember app is fully integrated with Evernote, offering cloud-based cross-platform synchronization of notes, and BlackBerry 10 supports PIM synchronization with cloud-based services such as Outlook.com and the paid version of Gmail.
Regardless, small business users expressed enthusiasm for the new platform and devices. Trevor Herrle-Braun, operations manager of Herrle's Country Farm Market in St. Agatha, Ont., thinks RIM is serving businesses like his well with its new devices. A BlackBerry user since the early 1990s, Mr. Herrle-Braun has switched to one of the new BlackBerry Z10 smartphones, and is finding he doesn't miss the keyboard at all. "For me on the farm, with the dust and the dirt, having a full wipeable screen and knowing I won't get dust in the keys is a huge thing," he noted. "I don't think I've gone to my home computer as much since I've been on it. I really believe that I can do pretty much anything I need to do throughout the day through BlackBerry 10. And I love the screen size."
He also finds BlackBerry 10's multitasking a time-saver. When he's planting or spraying, Mr. Herrle-Braun says he keeps a spreadsheet, weather forecast, weather radar, Twitter, and other apps open so he has all he needs at his fingertips.
What he does miss is the option to automatically shut down the device at night, and turn it back on in the morning. "I'm on it all day long," he said. "I really liked the sleep feature. I liked to have it do that at 11:30 at night, and come back on at 5:30 in the morning."
The scheduled auto on/off is not on the road map either. Mr. Clewley said that it added unwanted complexity to the system. However, other items flagged by users, such as lack of keyboard shortcuts on the Q10, and too few apps, are being addressed. Some shortcuts have already been restored, and the company is waiting for customer feedback on its selections. The number of apps has expanded to over 120,000, and includes heavily requested ones such as Skype.
Mr. Herrle-Braun is philosophical about the gaps, since he's seen improvements with each OS update. "It's hard to get everything perfect the first time round," he said. "For me as a small business owner, BlackBerry 10 has empowered me. I don't have time to sit in front of the computer in season. If I can do what I need through the device during the day, it gives me time to spend with my family."