The BlackBerry Reaps The Fruits Of Innovation

March 29, 2004
What's one of the recipes to success in electronic products? To start, take an identifiable market with a clear need. Then, mix in a good portion of creativity, a unique innovative approach, and some fresh new intellectual property. Next, roll out a...

What's one of the recipes to success in electronic products? To start, take an identifiable market with a clear need. Then, mix in a good portion of creativity, a unique innovative approach, and some fresh new intellectual property. Next, roll out a product so simple and easy to use that you never need to flip through a manual. Finally, garnish it with an addictive quality that also serves our neverending desire for instant gratification and, voila, you can serve up an unbeatable standout product.

Such steps were followed in the creation of the BlackBerry. You've no doubt seen a BlackBerry or may even have one yourself. If not, you've heard about them. It's the ultimate communications appliance for the mobile warrior. Developed by Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, the BlackBerry started life as an e-mail-only device. Today, though, it's an e-mail terminal plus a cell phone and a PDA.

What's the big deal with the BlackBerry? You can get e-mail on many packet-based cell phones, some coming with PDA functions. But none handles e-mail better than the BlackBerry. With its full but miniature QWERTY keyboard, color screen, and unique "push" e-mail approach, the BlackBerry makes most other cell phones look like yesteryear's technology. In its twentieth year, RIM continues its success with a wide range of BlackBerries designed to support many different wireless carriers.

WHAT MAKES IT A BLACKBERRY? The first BlackBerry arrived on the market in 1998. It came with its characteristic full keyboard plus a black and white LCD screen. It was an e-mail-only product that held one advantage over everyone else—push technology. Pull technology, its opposite, involves logging onto a site and downloading e-mail. With push technology, the e-mail is automatically and continuously routed to the BlackBerry. So when you turn it on, it's all there to see immediately. No further action is required. It's updated automatically as new messages are received, and it's always on.

Today's BlackBerry models include a cell phone and some PDA functions, plus a color screen. Both GSM/GPRS and CDMA2000 technology BlackBerries are available from carriers like AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, T-Mobile, Verizon, and many others outside the U.S.

Typical of the newer models is the BlackBerry 7200 series (Fig. 1). This model is for those whose wireless carriers use the GSM/GPRS system. Different model numbers designate products for the different carriers, such as AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile. One key feature of the 7200 is that it offers full international roaming anywhere the GSM/GPRS systems exist.

The 7200 series features voice, always-on push wireless e-mail, SMS, a full-featured organizer with a calendar, an address book, an alarm clock, PC synchronization software, and a WAP text-only browser for Internet access. It has a backlit QWERTY keyboard and a 240- by 160-pixel display supporting 65k colors. A USB cable handles the charging and PC connection. A thumb-operated track wheel selects icons and functions. The rechargeable lithium battery offers four hours of talk time and 10 days of standby time. Memory is 16-Mbyte flash and 2-Mbyte SRAM. And of course, there's the wireless modem. The unit supports Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), an open standard that can handle specially developed applications.

1,000,000+ USERS Early this year, RIM passed the 1 million-user mark with BlackBerry. Being a unique technology and product with virtually no competition, it should not come as a surprise. What may surprise some is how the BlackBerry lives up to its hype. As those who use it have discovered, the BlackBerry is a true business productivity tool.

Corporate execs and managers, government and military officers, and the financial and legal communities regularly use the BlackBerry. For those who dislike taking their laptops with them on trips, the BlackBerry provides a small but powerful way to keep up with the one thing we dread when returning from a trip: tons of e-mails. With a phone and e-mail terminal in one package, it's no wonder it has become the weapon of choice by many executives and road warriors.

Executives really love the BlackBerry because they don't have to lug a laptop with them. Laptops still have a geeky image that many execs want to avoid. Yet they do want and need to stay in touch by phone and e-mail, so the pocket-sized BlackBerry has become their solution.

The legal industry is a major user of the BlackBerry. Many big law firms have adopted BlackBerry for full communications among partners as well as to maintain continuous contact with clients during crisis periods. While you can't use a cell phone in the courtroom or a meeting, you can send the silent SMS or e-mail message that may save the day.

Another big BlackBerry user is the financial industry. It's a way to keep in touch with the markets and clients, and it leads to enhanced overall productivity. Government officials also take advantage of BlackBerry. It has become the tool of choice for senators, congressmen, and their staffs, keeping them in touch on critical committee meetings and votes where cell phones are banned. The Department of Defense and other U.S. agencies regularly use BlackBerry because it's safe and encrypted. State and local governments, including police and sheriff departments, are also significant users of BlackBerry. Pharmaceutical and real-estate industries have gone BlackBerry, too, discovering the ease of use and versatility that brings improved communications and productivity. The ability to be responsive improves competitiveness, strengthening the bottom line.

HOW IT WORKS The BlackBerry is more than a clever handheld. It's a complete set of hardware and software that works together to deliver push e-mail technology and more. It consists of the BlackBerry Wireless Handheld, the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software, the BlackBerry Desktop Software, and the BlackBerry Wireless Web Client. On top of that, it offers the wireless data and voice services available from most major wireless network providers.

The handheld is the visible part of the solution. This terminal is the interface to access corporate data and e-mail. But it's the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software that makes the system work. Residing on the corporate (or government) e-mail server, the software is designed to work primarily with Microsoft Exchange or IBM Lotus Domino. This software manages the messaging redirection, enables wireless access to corporate data, provides encryption, and lets administrators centrally manage BlackBerry deployment.

With the Desktop Software, users can synchronize the BlackBerry handheld using their standard corporate PC. This ensures that each system has the same e-mail files, regardless of which is used. The BlackBerry Web Client software permits access to multiple existing e-mail accounts from a single BlackBerry handheld. You can add and use up to 10 personal e-mail accounts in addition to your regular corporate account. The Web Client pulls e-mail from the accounts and then redirects them by pushing them out to your handheld.

Figure 2 illustrates how e-mail is typically sent and received through your corporate e-mail account. In the receive mode, an incoming e-mail comes in via the Internet through the corporate e-mail server containing the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. That message contains your regular e-mail address. It goes into the Microsoft Exchange or IBM Lotus Domino server inbox. The Enterprise Server retrieves a copy of the message and then compresses and encrypts it using 3DES (triple DES or Digital Encryption Standard). After that, the encrypted message is sent via the Internet to the wireless network provider, which delivers it automatically to the handheld. The user is notified of an e-mail's arrival by ring tone, vibration, or LED. The BlackBerry decrypts and decompresses the message and displays it.

To reply or compose a message on the handheld, you just keyboard it in using the two-thumb method that seems to be the preferred method by users. The BlackBerry performs the compression and encryption internally and then sends the message to the wireless carrier. The carrier passes it along through an Internet connection to the Enterprise Server running back at the office. The message is decrypted and decompressed and subsequently sent to the recipient from the user's normal e-mail account on the server, where it appears to be from the regular e-mail account. It's indistinguishable from e-mail sent from the user's desktop PC. A copy of the message appears in the user's "Sent" file on the desktop PC.

The procedure is similar when using another e-mail account (Fig. 3). A message for you arrives at your Internet service provider (ISP) and is sent to the user's inbox. The BlackBerry Web Client retrieves a copy of the message and forwards it to the handheld via the Internet and the wireless carrier. To send a message, you keyboard it in and send it to the wireless carrier and to the BlackBerry Web Client. From there it goes to the ISP, who then sends it as if it came from your regular ISP e-mail address.

ENGINEERING THE BLACKBERRY Designing the BlackBerry initially doesn't seem like such an enormous task. Yet it takes lots of hardware, software, servers, and wireless networks working in concert to make the magic happen. Back at RIM, hundreds of engineers are involved with BlackBerry development.

I asked Mike Lazaridis, president and co-CEO of RIM, what has turned the BlackBerry into such a success. He says that in addition to the innovative concept, lots of IP, and dozens of patents, the primary factor is attention to detail. As engineers, we already know the devil is in the details. Nevertheless, it's easy to forget that the coming together of each nitty-gritty piece of design makes a large complex system seem to work seamlessly.

Figure 4 shows a general block diagram of a generic BlackBerry handheld. What it doesn't show is some of the key challenges that were conquered by the engineers, namely power consumption and security. To handle the computing, RIM went to Intel for a special low-power version of the 386 processor. It features all of the needed computing horsepower, but a severe power reduction was required.

So, RIM found displays that don't need backlighting. If you have ever designed with LCDs, you know that the backlighting eats more power than anything else in the product. Getting rid of that gave the BlackBerry its long battery life—nearly three weeks of standby operation.

As for the cell-phone element, you can get models that use GSM/GPRS, CDMA2000, or iDEN. RIM uses Analog Devices' GSM/GPRS chip set, which was optimized for low-power operation. For the CDMA models, RIM went with the Qualcomm chip set. And, Motorola supplies the iDEN chip sets that work with Nextel systems.

Another key success strategy was security. It remains a widespread issue for cell phones and Wi-Fi wireless local-area networks (LANs) when it comes to e-mail. Companies still avoid the topic and continue to contemplate how to do it safely, or they're trying to figure out how to get users to simply commit. The number of options has become overwhelming.

Despite all of the concerns for privacy, security measures have yet to find wide usage. In the BlackBerry, security was built in from the beginning and is not even an issue. It just exists, in the form of the long-proven 3DES system invented for the U.S. government (see "What's 3DES?" above). Every message is automatically encrypted and decrypted as it's sent or received.

WHAT'S COMING? RIM continues to revise and update its current BlackBerry line to fit wireless carriers' needs. Plus, it continues to focus on how to improve the system for corporate and government users. In the future, you'll no doubt find models that use the higher data-rate wireless systems like EDGE for GSM/GPRS or CDMA. Eventually, WCDMA 3G models will be in the works. On top of that, expect to see a model that works with the thousands of 802.11 Wi-Fi wireless LAN hot spots that now exist.

The question you have to ask is why there hasn't been any serious competition if the BlackBerry is so successful. Well, competition exists. Good Link offers a similar product and system, but it's not nearly as successful as the BlackBerry. Other companies like Palm and Dell are seriously considering a run at RIM. When you're number one, you're going to feel the heat.

Meanwhile, RIM's most recent effort is to license its technology so that others can make compatible but competing products. It has already inked deals with Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, hp Compaq iPaq, and Taiwan's High Tech Computer Corp. We may see some BlackBerry clones this year, underscoring the BlackBerry's success.

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