IT shops sifting RIM's bold promises and plans

At annual BlackBerry World, enterprise IT staff reactions span fear, hope, apathy

Research in Motion executives and managers practiced staying "on message" at BlackBerry World this week, repeating a series of mantras about the company's directions and product plans. Yet the simple message is running into the hard practicalities of enterprise IT customers, and they want details and nuance.

Sometimes both were in short supply at RIM's annual customer conference in Orlando. RIM is in the midst of a life-or-death transition, moving to a new operating system, building support for it from application vendors and software developers, and crafting the next generation of smartphones and tablets due out later this year. RIM's creating plans and products at a rapid pace for both consumer and enterprise markets.

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But RIM's enterprise customers are incredibly diverse. Some are stable for even fast-growing BlackBerry shops. Some use the phones only for email and voice calls, others with only minimal app downloads. Nearly all of them are at different stages of struggling with how to deal with employees at all levels who bring non-BlackBerry devices to work and want to access email at least and sometimes more, often to the detriment of RIM. Surprisingly, few of those interviewed are closely following BlackBerry 10, the next generation mobile operating system highlighted at BlackBerry World.

Cereal company MOMbrands, until recently known as Malt-O-Meal, has about 500 BlackBerry users, but few of them seem really satisfied with their smartphones, according to a pair of technical support analysts at BlackBerry World. "Most of our users are not BlackBerry fans," says Tim Wood. "They want the iPhone."

Colleague David Aman says he walks through the company and often sees a user's BlackBerry lying on the desk, "and another [brand of] phone right next to it. It's silly." Some of the dissatisfaction is caused by a raft of small and not so small annoyances, ranging from podcasts being stopped when a call comes in and never resuming, to frustratingly poor battery performance.

Top executives now want iPads and iPhones, many of which are being informally "tested" by these senior managers who bring them to work and then want support. Aman says that IT is considering adopting a "bring your own device" regime as a way of simplifying mobile confusion and IT's responsibilities.

Yet at South African-based Sansol, a global chemicals manufacturer, the mobile policy bans personal devices in favor of corporate-issued BlackBerry smartphones. At Sansol North America, headquartered in Houston, systems administrator Tray Gonzalez has about 2,000 BlackBerry users in various regions, with 500 in the U.S. The number has been increasing and field sales staff are now testing a few BlackBerry PlayBook tablets.

"We haven't allowed BYOD, but so many people are requesting it, that we're looking into it," Gonzalez says. One concern is that a change in policy would lead to an unmanageable explosion of iOS and Android devices.

Gonzalez says he's impressed with RIM's recent release of the BlackBerry Device Service, an application for managing PlayBooks and all future BlackBerry 10 devices, and Universal Device Service, for managing iOS and Android devices, under the umbrella product name of BlackBerry Mobile Fusion. The classic BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) is needed for managing existing handsets running the traditional BlackBerry OS. A Web portal, called Mobile Fusion Studio, lets an administrator see the three separate device groups in a unified view.

Gonzalez plans to download the free, 60-day trial version of the Device Service and test it out. "I think it's great," he says.

The Mobile Fusion family promises to let IT centralize a multi-platform device population at Bed, Bath & Beyond, the housewares and home furnishings retailer based in Union, N.J. Currently there are just less than 500 corporate-issued BlackBerry users, and now under the company's recent BYOD program, about 300 iOS users, says Paul Rubino, the company's wireless supervisor. Some but not all of the iOS users are former BlackBerry users.

"Fusion makes sense because we're already a BlackBerry shop," he says. "It looks pretty good." PlayBooks are being tested in some stores, along with an in-house app for real-time inventory management, and BlackBerry Device Service would be the central tool for managing a far-flung deployment.

But some users are waking up to the potential costs of RIM's Mobile Fusion approach for mobile device management: a burgeoning back-end of separate servers. A multi-billion dollar diversified manufacturer has 4,500 BlackBerry users, but also has 600 Apple iPads, which are managed by SAP's Sybase Afaria mobile management application. The company also has just installed BlackBerry Device Service, to manage the few existing PlayBooks but in expectation of more in the future. The idea is "We have forty-five hundred users with the BES," says an IT staffer who manages mobile infrastructure support, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If we can leverage that, that's good,"

But there are stumbling blocks. BDS and UDS, as do most other MDM offerings, typically use Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync. EAS can be used to deliver email as well as to exploit management or security features offered by Exchange Server. RIM uses EAS in these services to deliver mail to non-BlackBerry devices. That came as a surprise to the IT staffer at the big manufacturer. "We were expecting to get secure mail delivery," he says. "So now, it's Microsoft that's giving us our 'secure' mail?"

In a conference session introducing Mobile Fusion, John Edward, a RIM senior product manager, said the company leverages ActiveSync but "we add a secure container on the device and a secure tunnel [to the enterprise]."

There are other support costs, says the manufacturer's IT staffer, from the largely manual client provisioning, the clients licensing costs, help desk training and support, and upgrading the BES servers to the latest software version - BES 5.0.3 -- in order to deploy the Mobile Fusion Studio administrative user interface.

REACTION: RIM faces trouble despite BlackBerry 10 

There are also the separate backend servers that host BDS and UDS. Currently the manufacturer has four BES servers, two of them as high availability back-ups, to support the BlackBerries in use. Both BDS and UDS will require one or two or possibly more servers, and if they're part of a high-availability deployment a backup server for each. The total BlackBerry server population could double or more, he said.

Because the current BES architecture will not support BB10, enterprises will have to deploy and test BlackBerry Device Service, before the rumored October 2012 release date of the first BB10 devices, he pointed out.

BlackBerry users at Liberty Mutual, the Boston -based insurer, are "way up" from two years ago, to about 7,500. But six months ago, the company finally allowed personal devices to be used, though only iOS. MobileIron was chosen as the device management application for the Apple products. The BYOD program now has about 1,000 users.

"That was more than we expected," says Chris Moore, senior systems administrator with Liberty Mutual's desktop and mobile computing group.

RIM has highlighted the progress of its online app catalog, BlackBerry App World, and showcased some marquee software vendors that have already put together early apps for BB10, ranging from augmented reality, to music entertainment, and high performance games. But for most of these enterprises, BlackBerry apps hardly exist.

At MOMbrands, BlackBerry smartphones are used solely for voice and email. Liberty Mutual deployed Salesforce for BlackBerry and an enterprise IM app, but little else. Sansol adds only an RSA SecureID app, bans the downloading of other apps and uses BES to enforce that.

Bed, Bath & Beyond is unusual among the companies interviewed in that it gives some considerable latitude for BlackBerry users to download a range of apps from BlackBerry App World. "We try to give them as much freedom as possible to do their job," wireless supervisor Rubino says.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.


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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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