Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why Blackberry's fall could be bad for business communications

The general consensus is that Blackberry is on it's way down. There is some cheer-leading of this to some degree amongst the tech savvy because of what Blackberry has become: slow to innovate and expensive to use for so few features. I personally hate my Blackberry. It has a large touchscreen which freezes on me regularly and no Wifi built-in because when it came out, phone carriers were afraid of it turning into a VOIP device. So it was neutered. Or so the conspiracy theory goes.
But if Blackberry ceases to exists, we would be losing a key figure in the business communications over the Internet. Like it or not, BlackBerry systems have made Internet mail acceptable for serious business communications.
E-mail is so central to businesses now that it is easy to forget how fragile Internet Mail is. Until the advent of the Blackberry, I could not bring myself to recommend Internet e-mail as a primary means of business communication. Internet was playing a role in e-mail but mostly as cheap way to build VPNs for proprietary e-mail systems to talk to each other. Companies did have Internet mail addresses but these were either untrustworthy or of limited use.
There are too many problems with Internet mail, namely identity and delivery. You can never be sure anybody is who they claim to be unless you verified it through another medium. Internet mail is also notoriously difficult to figure out whether it has been delivered or not. Even standards back then were mainly about confirmation of mail being read. But that information was offered only voluntarily.
The Blackberry addresses these two concerns. First was the notion that a sender sending a message from a BB is really a real person using a phone. Blackberry and the phone company essentially verifies the person using the phone because he is both registered with the BB service and is paying a phone bill. The identity of the person sending can be made certain.
The Blackberry service also unifies the mail client and the mail server, technically known as the mail user agent (MUA) and the mail transfer agent (MTA). In standard Internet mail, the mail client and the mail server are two separate entities whose interactions are largely one way. You either send mail or receive mail at a given time. The MUA can only confirm a message has been sent to the MTA. The MTAs talk to each other to send mail. Blackberry unifies this and provides their customers with a way to confirm a message has been delivered. On BB, the users know when the MTA has sent the message to the recipient because it is one integrated system. So it solves the second problem by provide the person sending the mail, a way to know that the message has been delivered.

I am obviously simplifying this to a degree. There is no guarantee that a message is delivered directly. But no other mail system on the Internet provides this form of feedback to user. Nothing reassures the user more than an indication that their mail is on it's way. By comparison, sending e-mail clients on the other phones is like releasing a carrier pigeon; you it's left your hands but that's it.
Another reason Blackberry is popular is because it offers what amounts to fleet management. The BB devices are centrally managed and by a large degree interchangeable. Lose a Blackberry? The IT department will send a message to it to self destruct ... it's data. And they'll hand you another one with all the previous messages and contacts loaded up. Try that on an Android or iPhone. It is possible but not as seamless. And you may have to give up your personal password at some point.
These are some of the business-friendly services that BlackBerry provides. If they go down, it will be a shame because no one else provides the same services. Or is it that because no one else does, they are still alive?

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