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What Is a BlackBerry

by Dave Mabe, author of BlackBerry Hacks
A BlackBerry is a handheld PDA device that is engineered from the ground up for email. If email has become a vital part of your business or personal life, then you would no doubt benefit from using a BlackBerry. Most models now come with a built-in mobile phone, making the BlackBerry an obvious choice for users with the need to access their email from somewhere besides the comfort of a desk chair.

In this article:

  1. Email: BlackBerry's Bread and Butter
  2. Keyboard Design and Usability
  3. The BlackBerry Web Browser
  4. Key Corporate Features
  5. Developers, Developers, Developers
  6. Games and Third-Party Apps
  7. Quick Tips for New Users
  8. So, What Is a BlackBerry?

Although you can't make a cobbler out of it, there's not much else you can't do with a BlackBerry. The device now sports a cell phone and other features, but recently it has gained popularity because of its push email capabilities in particular. Most handheld devices force you to retrieve your messages when you happen to be in a coverage area. With a BlackBerry, email messages are pushed to your device the instant they are received in your inbox. You can view them even when you're out of cellular coverage. Research In Motion (RIM), the maker of the BlackBerry, has built on this solid foundation of push email and has added a slew of features, including built-in security, to make the BlackBerry a leader in the corporate wireless email market.

In this article, we'll look at six reasons why the BlackBerry is a true productivity tool, and conclude with tips for new users.

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Figure 1. BlackBerry 7290 (left)
Figure 2. BlackBerry 7100g (right)

1. Email: BlackBerry's Bread and Butter

Once you obtain a BlackBerry device, you'll need to establish service with one of the wireless carriers. In addition to your regular voice plan, you'll need a BlackBerry data plan. Although there are options for per-megabyte plans, it's best to go ahead and get an unlimited data plan since you're likely to transmit more data than you would with a standard mobile phone. Once your wireless service is established, you'll be assigned an email address such as username@mycingular.blackberry.net, which will deliver messages to your device. Although you could start using that address, you'll probably want to integrate your BlackBerry with your existing email accounts. Just set up forwarding using procmail or a .forward file to forward your mail to your BlackBerry email address. You can also configure BlackBerry Web Client to check an email account using POP3 and deliver new messages as they arrive. There's no "Check Now" or "Send and Receive" button to click--new messages are pushed to your device as they are received.

By default, any messages you send from your device will show as coming from your blackberry.net address. You can log on to the BlackBerry Web Client (also known as the BlackBerry Internet Service) and change the From: address to whatever address you choose. The BlackBerry will let you open common attachments as well, a feature that handhelds have traditionally lacked.

2. Keyboard Design and Usability

Although push email is the main reason for the BlackBerry's meteoric rise, the form factor and keyboard make it as usable as any handheld device on the market. With the trackwheel combined with the QWERTY keyboard, you'll type and get around on the BlackBerry much faster than your Palm-toting friends. The newer, consumer-targeted 7100 series has a smaller form factor and fewer keys. In order to type using a keyboard on which more than one letter is assigned to a key, the 7100 uses a technology called SureType, which predicts the words you are typing as you enter them. This feature is surprisingly effective, and RIM has promised more typing improvements around the corner.

In addition to the keyboard layout, the BlackBerry OS provides myriad shortcut keys that advanced users will want to commit to memory. Built-in shortcuts provide quick access to common programs and functions, not only allowing you to move around quicker but also reducing the battery usage. Although you'll find the keyboard a breeze compared with those of other handhelds, you can also create your own abbreviations to shorten common phrases. For example, you could set up an AutoType abbreviation to insert your mailing address when you type the string addr in a text field.

3. The BlackBerry Web Browser

The BlackBerry ships with an excellent browser capable of viewing a variety of formats including HTML, XHTML, WML, and SVG, and common image types as well. Not only can you access internet sites, but corporate customers can also use a server-side component called the BlackBerry Enterprise Server to provide secure access to intranet sites. The most recent incarnation of the BlackBerry Browser supports JavaScript, unlocking some important sites that rely on it to function. The browser options give you control over what functions you'd like to enable. For example, you can disable SVG support or specify that images don't display by default (since they take a little longer to load anyway).

4. Key Corporate Features

Security-conscious companies will find much to like with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). All communication between the BES and handhelds occurs through a single TCP port, so firewall configuration is easy. Also, all data that flows to handhelds homed on a BES is encrypted.

With the latest version of the BES, all your PIM data, such as your Outlook contacts, calendar, tasks, and mail messages, are synchronized wirelessly. So, when you add a contact using Outlook on your desktop computer or mark an incoming mail message as read, that change is synced with your handheld. The synchronization is two-way, so when you make changes on your BlackBerry, they'll show up in your Outlook client as well.

Administration of the BES and all handhelds is performed using a convenient MMC admin console. You can view up-to-the-second statistics on a per-handheld basis, such as the last handheld contact time and the number of messages pending delivery to the handheld. Adding a BlackBerry for a new user is as simple as selecting the user from the directory. The newly provisioned device can be enabled wirelessly as long as the device is within a coverage area. The initial syncing of PIM data and security keys is performed over the air, although this can be completed over a USB connection to a desktop computer.

Figure 3. A user's real time delivery statistics

IT policies can be configured on the BES to centrally control almost every feature on the handheld. For example, you can enforce a device inactivity time-out in which the user must enter a password to use the device, or you can specify a certain home page for the BlackBerry Browser. You can create multiple policies and assign certain ones to specific users or groups. The IT policies are applied almost instantly over the air as they are changed. Administrators can assign certain third-party applications to handhelds and can specify that they be installed silently over the air.

Corporate web developers have several options to allow secure access to the mounds of data that exist on company intranets. Data can be pushed to the device using the Mobile Data Service, a component of the BES. Existing corporate web applications can be easily modified to communicate with wireless devices using existing internet protocols such as HTTP.

5. Developers, Developers, Developers

The BlackBerry is a fully J2ME-compliant device, paving the way for the army of Java developers in the world to become BlackBerry developers. RIM encourages application developers by giving away a free, full IDE, along with device simulators for every handheld model. This gives developers access to a simulated environment for every aspect of the BlackBerry platform including email delivery and web access.

6. Games and Third-Party Apps

For those who still think of the BlackBerry as simply a souped-up pager, think again. A large and rapidly growing community of third-party developers is creating applications for the BlackBerry. Magmic is a handheld game development company that has created some excellent multiplayer games for the BlackBerry. Texas Hold'em King 2 and Medieval Kings Chess 2 are two truly innovative multiplayer games for the BlackBerry that showcase the device's surprising graphics and network capabilities.

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Figure 4. A game of Texas Hold 'Em 2 with a hand I'm getting ready to fold (left)
Figure 5. A game of Medieval Kings Chess 2 - on guard! (right)

The addition of Bluetooth and a GPS to some models has created a whole new range of possibilities for the device. Freedom Input makes a foldout keyboard for the BlackBerry that uses the Bluetooth interface to let you type wirelessly. ThinPrint makes a product called Content Beamer that lets you print from the BlackBerry to any Bluetooth-enabled printer.

The GPS that's integrated in to the Nextel BlackBerry 7520 has spawned some great location-based software for the device. TeleNav makes a product of the same name that will speak driving directions as you travel by car. The Caffeine Finder service locates the nearest coffee shop given your current coordinates as provided by the GPS (a non-GPS version is also available). Additionally, you can use Spot from Skylab Mobilesystems to turn your GPS BlackBerry into the ultimate geocaching device.

Quick Tips for New Users

So, What Is a BlackBerry?

The BlackBerry is a PDA that combines a mobile phone with the absolute best wireless email experience on the market. Because it supports J2ME, you'll see the pace of innovation of third-party software for the BlackBerry continue to accelerate--and so will your productivity.

Dave Mabe is an accomplished and largely self-taught engineer and writer who strives to create a simple, elegant solution to a complex problem.

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