Gadget love strikes the enterprise

- or Charlotte Patin, it started last winter, the day she met two Microsoft consultants who had BlackBerry handhelds clipped to their belts. One peek at the wireless e-mail and personal information manager device - complete with tiny thumbable keyboard - and she was hooked.

As director of IS for Columbus, Ohio, law firm Bricker & Eckler, Patin wanted to provide the attorneys with wireless access to corporate e-mail, contacts and calendars without having them lug around laptops. Patin's group initiated a plan, launched a pilot program, and today, BlackBerry 957 handhelds are standard issue to all 115 Bricker attorneys, and employed as a recruitment tool for young associates.

Research in Motion (RIM)'s BlackBerry, which comes in Internet and enterprise versions, is this year's corporate darling. While there are only about 150,000 subscribers nationwide - less than the Palm VII according to The Yankee Group. - BlackBerries have become must-have tools, primarily in the financial and technology sectors. While devices such as the Palm VII and Motorola TimePort let you wirelessly access Post Office Protocol mail accounts, RIM's secret sauce is the ability to integrate with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes mail systems.

From the Exchange or Lotus Notes server, messages are sent to the desktop client and the BlackBerry simultaneously, obviating the need for message synchronization routines and separate wireless e-mail addresses. Message management features let users set filters, receive only message headers and delete blocks of messages by date. Moreover, messages are Triple-DES encrypted, providing the strongest security available.

The BlackBerry 950, which looks like a traditional text pager, costs US$399, and the larger palm-sized BlackBerry 957 is $500. Wireless service from Cingular Interactive (formerly BellSouth Wireless Data) ranges from $40 to $74 per user per month, with higher costs including enhanced paging and roaming in the US and Canada. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server costs $3,000 for 20 users, and additional packs of 10 client licenses cost $490.

"I'm not a gadget person, but you can't pry it out of my fingers," Patin says.

Though many people interviewed expressed nothing but praise for RIM's setup and management, many had a short list of complaints. Patin's primary one is coverage, which is concentrated in metropolitan areas. "Some partners live in suburbs pretty far from Columbus, and when they travel five minutes in the opposite direction, coverage stops," she says.

We also heard a universal plea for attachment support, which is being offered by some third-party providers. Some wish for a backlit keyboard and brighter screen. Those looking to update calendars wirelessly will be glad to know BlackBerry 2.1, announced this week, adds the capability, as well as a text cut-and-paste feature.

But beyond helping mobile professionals stay on top of e-mail, the BlackBerry is also helping some IT managers better manage their networks - and their bottom lines. Mohamad Al-hashish, director of infrastructure at Hidden Mind, a wireless device software development company near Research Triangle Park, N.C., manages a fleet of 50 BlackBerry devices used by Hidden Mind's executive, sales, marketing and IT teams.

"All my engineers use the 957s to help us monitor the network. We use 3Com's Transcend Management Software to monitor the switches, and if they go down, we get an e-mail notification," he says. Because Hidden Mind uses a Shoreline Communications' IP phone system, Al-hashish also receives e-mail notification of incoming phone messages on his BlackBerry. While he can't take the call, Al-hashish gets the caller's number, same as a numeric page.

Hidden Mind also boasts a nearly 50 percent decrease in mobile phone usage since bringing in the BlackBerry devices. "We've dropped everybody down to about 250 minutes per month," Al-hashish says. "That's a really good savings for us."

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