Digital Devicement: Part Three – BlackBerry Picking Time

It’s only mail and text, but I like it, like it

I remember attending a Rolling Stones concert at the Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles last year. When it was apparent that the final encore had been given and that the event was over, the audience stood to leave and the darkness was punctuated by the twinkling of ten thousand BlackBerries: the Rolling Stones generation checking their inboxes. No cigarette lighters held up in the air to honour the band (there probably wasn’t one smoker in a thousand at the venue), just handsets held up to their own faces to honour the bandwidth. The moment seemed to distill some truth about our culture that simultaneously amused, depressed and delighted me. Go, as they say, figure.

The Canadian company Research In Motion introduced its first BlackBerry, a duplex pager, ten years ago. Since then RIM has established itself and its device as one of the great success stories of the digital age. BlackBerry is a kind of cult – a verb, a metonym, a synecdoche for corporate life on the move.

Under the RIM

For those of you unconnected with business, the way Blackberryists interface with their phones may be unfamiliar. Typically he or she will have been given the handset by their employer. This is not an act of generosity. The device is a kind of leash, a digital ball and chain not far from the electronic tag that convicts on parole are forced to wear. The email and calendar accounts are controlled by the company, via BlackBerry Enterprise Server connections. Each handset can be zapped, nixed and deactivated by the corporate IT people whose hands are ever hovering over the kill switch, awaiting the command from the Fifth Floor. Or so it must seem to some employees. Like the bonds of marriage, the connection can be seen as a welcome tie that binds you with ribbons of gold to the company you love, or as a set of shackles that confine you for ever in a hateful prison from which there is no escape.

There is a civilian way to own a Blackberry, however. You or I can walk into a network provider’s retail operation and sign up for a BlackBerry enabled account.  Nowadays the configuration for this is done Over The Air: fire up the device for the first time, follow the email set-up wizard and voilà! – you’re a BlackBerryist. RIM calls this a BIS (BlackBerry Internet Service) connection, in contrast to the BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) connection for the corporate user.

In either case RIM’s own servers ensure that their unique email system works on your device and delivers the authentic BlackBerry experience that many find so addictive. Essentially your handset is in a state of constant connection to these servers, which will ‘push’ emails to you the moment they come in. You can as-good-as-replicate this on a non BB phone by setting it to connect to your email server as frequently as once a minute say, but that wouldn’t be true push and tends to be more wearing on batteries. Google, expanding into all areas of online life as it is, does now offer genuine Exchange server push email to iPhones or other platforms for those with Gmail accounts. I have to say I’ve found this service so far a lot flakier than either BlackBerry or the standard iPhone ‘fetch’ IMAP4 or POP3 connections, just as Google’s CalDAV syncing is also prone to arbitrary disconnection and failure. The Big G get away with this kind of unreliability by being a) free to use and b) in a constant and eternal state of Beta. GoogleSync also offers calendar and contact syncing with a number of platforms including RIM, but we’re wandering from the subject…

The appeal of BlackBerry has always been simple: secure push email without frills. From the corporate point of view it’s a one system solution with an admirable data security record and VPN-style command and control capabilities. For the individual who is hooked on their CrackBerry, it’s all about eliminating frills and fancy folderols and concentrating on text input and output.

For years any clamour for music, video, third-party applications or even basic colour and HTML browsing was met with raised eyebrows. “This is a business tool, not some student gaming platform,” the shamed enquirer would be told in the scandalised tones of a butler who has just been asked for ketchup. Indeed, a proud feature of first, second and third generation BlackBerries was that they had no camera. How did this give bragging rights, you may wonder? Well, it meant that when you visited a factory, a boardroom, a government department or any secure or sensitive area, you didn’t have to check in your phone:  “I’m so important, my work is so sensitive,” was the implied Blackberry boast, “that I have a camera-less phone. Kneel before Zod.”

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51 comments on “Digital Devicement: Part Three – BlackBerry Picking Time”

  1. Boog says:

    Thanks Stephen! Possibly the best written tech review I’ve read.

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