TECH & YOU PODCAST
What are you going to do if you wake up one morning and discover that your indispensible BlackBerry e-mail service has stopped, shut down by the judge hearing a patent infringement case? While I still think this is unlikely, it could happen. The good news is that there are some pretty decent alternatives for companies and individuals.
Research In Motion (RIMM) controls BlackBerry hardware, software, and the service that links them (though software that lets other handhelds work with BlackBerry mail is slowly becoming available). Thanks to this level of integration, BlackBerry devotees get an experience with few glitches. But, like Apple Computer (AAPL) customers, they depend on one vendor -- so going with an alternative requires both a new service and new hardware.
If you or your company decides to switch, there are a number of hardware approaches to choose from -- and you may not need to change your current carrier. The most popular is the Palm (PALM) Treo 650, which Cingular, Sprint (S), and Verizon Wireless sell for $200 and up with a service contract and after rebates. You can also check out some keyboard-equipped Pocket PCs, including the Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) iPaq hw6515 ($450 from Cingular Wireless), the Sprint PPC-6700 ($419), and the Samsung SCH-i730 ($600 from Verizon).
FOR CORPORATIONS, the major attraction of the BlackBerry hardware-service combo is the automatic delivery of e-mail to handheld devices. (The smaller group that uses BlackBerrys to retrieve mail from Internet accounts would not be affected by a shutdown of RIM's service.) There are two ways to get corporate mail into a BlackBerry handheld: a do-it-yourself version that relays messages from Microsoft Outlook on your desktop and a back-end system that uses BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to exchange mail and corporate data between BlackBerrys and your office computer systems.
The best alternative for these corporate deployments is GoodLink from Good Technology. It provides access similar to BlackBerry but on a variety of devices, including Treos, an assortment of Windows Mobile Pocket PCs and Smartphones, and the new Nokia (NOK) E91. Despite the similarity of the services, Good Technology does not face legal problems because it has licensed the disputed technology from patent holder NTP.
A GoodLink or BES installation can cost many thousands of dollars. Smaller businesses looking for a simpler and less expensive solution might consider the Sproqit Workgroup Edition from Sproqit Technologies, starting at $1,000 for five users. Sproqit is relatively easy to install and manage and provides many of the same services as Good or BlackBerry. A personal version that runs on the desktop costs $8.95 a month.
In addition to GoodLink and Sproqit, just about every wireless carrier offers services that can push e-mail, contacts, and calendar data from your desktop to Palms, Pocket PCs, and Smartphones. For example, Sprint offers a personal version of its Business Connection service for a $5 monthly surcharge on a data plan for a variety of wireless devices.
Microsoft (MSFT) has an angle on this as well, based on its corporate Exchange mail system. Soon, Exchange will include automatic wireless synchronization of mail, contacts, and calendar. The difficulty is that it requires the latest version of Exchange, which relatively few customers run yet. Furthermore, it works only with Pocket PCs and Smartphones running the latest version of Windows Mobile software, and some features won't work until an update to the handheld software becomes available in a few weeks.
BlackBerry continues to be a wonderful way to get mobile e-mail. But should worse come to worst, or if you are simply tired of having all your eggs in one basket, it's good to know there are other choices.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm
By Stephen H. Wildstrom