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Can BlackBerry regain its standing in enterprise?

Not all that long ago, the BlackBerry was a symbol of corporate power. Everyone who was anyone in a major organisation had to have one. Indeed, I can still argue it offers the best enterprise email, contacts, and calendar system, plus corporate IT departments still swear by its security. These days, though, the BlackBerry is decidedly old-school and a lot of the end-users who carry BlackBerrys are now asking for iPhones, Android devices, or other more modern smartphones. Indeed, almost every IT department I talk to is now interested in deploying some set of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies with Mobile Device Management (MDM).

Earlier this week, I attended the New York version of Research in Motion's BlackBerry 10 Jam, an event aimed at convincing enterprise developers that the BlackBerry is still relevant and that they should be creating corporate applications for the platforms. This is a definite challenge for RIM in an environment moving towards BYOD, and where many MDM vendors and now even Google are offering "enterprise app stores."

Still, RIM makes a good case that it will be offering a unique and potentially more efficient operating system when BlackBerry 10 comes to market on January 30. It will also be offering tools for enterprise developers.

At the event, I had a chance to spend a bit more time looking at BlackBerry 10, and I think there are a number of features that should really appeal to the enterprise. Chief among these is BlackBerry Balance.

BlackBerry Balance

Balance sets up the phone with two partitions: One for personal apps and data, and one for work applications and data. These act as two separate file systems, and you can encrypt and manage the work side separately. This seems to work better than the other split environments I've seen partly because moving between the two sides is a very fast process. Mostly, though, I like the fact that you can use a single swipe to see a "hub" that combines data from both sides, including information from multiple mail accounts and both personal and business applications.

I also like a "peek" feature that lets you quickly glance at the hub while running another application. RIM seems to have really thought through the usage cases, figuring out how to share core applications like the phone dialler, photo viewer, and media player, without sharing the data and making it so that a corporate IT department can wipe only the business data. The shared calendar, for instance, does a nice job of colour-coding entries from different applications, so you can see which entries are from your work calendar, which are from your personal calendar, and which are Facebook notifications.

BlackBerry has a number of other security features that appeal to IT shops, including password control and policies: The BlackBerry Connection Service, which automatically sets up an always-on bi-directional encrypted tunnel back to the enterprise without the complexity of a traditional VPN; and also network access control features. For instance, some applications could only be used on trusted networks.

A new feature is AppWorld for Work, essentially an enterprise apps store where you can place both corporate and commercial applications. This runs on the work side of Balance, while the more general AppWorld is on the consumer side.

RIM Senior Director of Enterprise Developer Partnerships Gregg Ostrowski explained how RIM has two primary methods for developers. Most corporate developers will use Webworks, which starts with basic HTML5, CSS, and Javascript, and then adds tools for directly controlling BlackBerry hardware components.

It also uses an "invocation framework" that lets one application invoke another one (whether a core application or a third-party one), which should make the overall experience smoother (for instance, by building in the features of the camera application into a larger corporate app). This supports features such as the BlackBerry Connection Service to securely access the corporate network and Push, which allows applications to have data delivered behind the scenes, while using much less battery power than the traditional "pull" method for looking for new data.

Professional developers are more likely to use Cascades, which is based on C++ and offers more control and more speed, Ostrowski said. The Webworks approach, however, is better suited for corporate apps that can more easily integrate other software and often need to be cross-platform.

BlackBerry Enterprise Services 10

The basic deployment and management system has changed as well, with BlackBerry Enterprise Services 10 (BES 10) required to manage the upcoming BlackBerry 10 devices. This will run alongside a company's existing BES servers, which are still needed to manage older BlackBerrys.

One big change is that BES 10 now uses ActiveSync but, as Ostrowski explained, the implementation offers a variety of security enhancements over how ActiveSync has usually been provisioned in other environments. BES 10 is supposed to manage iOS and Android devices as well. (This is sometimes called BlackBerry Mobile Fusion, but now Fusion seems to be referred to as a feature of BES 10).

Initially, this will deliver mail directly via ActiveSync to native mail clients, he said, but a future version due out in the spring will also enable "containers" on the other devices, providing an additional layer of security. He said companies may decide to implement it both ways, with some users getting native mail and others using the container, depending on regulations and the sensitivity of the data.

Obviously, RIM faces a lot of challenges in making BlackBerry 10 succeed. It needs the final devices to work well and it needs end-users to find BlackBerry 10's unique features compelling. It may not need commercial developers to focus as much attention on BlackBerry as they do Apple and Android, but it does need a critical mass of such applications.

The key to any potential resurgence will be gaining enough support on the enterprise side for BES 10, and for writing corporate applications. The tools and security model should help, and I left the meeting pleasantly surprised by how far along the tools seem to be. BlackBerry still faces an uphill battle, but its armoury looks stronger than many give RIM credit for.

For more on BlackBerry 10, see our hands-on article here.

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.