Blackberry or Microsoft for mobile e-mail?

Last month Microsoft launched mobile e-mail functionality to challenge Research In Motion's Blackberry system.

E-mail is a key mobile application for business users, but what are the differences between Research in Motion's Blackberry system and Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0?

Last month Microsoft launched mobile e-mail functionality to challenge Research In Motion's Blackberry system.

Blackberry dominates the mobile e-mail market, with users such as Abbey, Friends Provident and Prudential. However, with a law suit over intellectual property rights threatening to shut down the Blackberry network in the US, IT directors are paying more attention to emerging alternatives.

IT directors can deploy Blackberry devices by signing a contract with any of four main network operators - O2, Orange, T-Mobile or Vodafone.

Under the contract, the network operator supplies an e-mail gateway server called the Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) as well as the mobile devices. BES is a product that strips the e-mail messages that arrive at the company's e-mail server of their formatting and compresses them. Attachments are also compressed. Powerpoint and PDF files are removed.

The BES then sends the e-mails to RIM's relay in Egham, Surrey. The relay, or network operation centre, handles every e-mail that is sent to a Blackberry user in Europe. Similar relays exist in the US and Asia. The e-mail messages are also encrypted and given a header by the BES. They are sent via a permanent outbound-only internet connection from port 3101.

When the relay receives e-mails from the BES, it reads the header on each one. RIM gives each network operator a pool of IP addresses when they agree to distribute to Blackberry devices.

The relay assigns the incoming e-mail to the devices with IP addresses that correspond to the headers. As the device holds the encryption key, all e-mails are secure throughout the transmission process.

Companies pay a monthly tariff for each user equipped with a Blackberry device. One concern a company may have with deploying the Blackberry is the amount of data individuals download.

However, each device has a notional monthly limit on its data use. The data limit has been set by the network and RIM so that few, if any, users will use more data than their flat-rate tariff allows.

Lee Underwood, RIM's commercial relations director, said, "All of the operators will have an operational limit of anything up to 20Mbytes per month. There is very little risk of the customer going over the notional threshold."

Steve Tait, business solutions manager at T-Mobile, is confident that users are unlikely to go over their data limit. "I am not aware of anyone who has bust the allowance bundle using e-mail on our network. If you are just using e-mail, you have got a known cost," he said.

The main alternative to Blackberry is Microsoft, which launched a mobile e-mail service as a patch to the Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system at the start of 2006. Microsoft had been due to include push e-mail in the launch of Mobile 5.0 last summer. But the push e-mail component had to be delayed.

Windows Mobile 5.0-equipped devices with push e-mail will repeatedly send small data packets to their corporate user's Microsoft Exchange server. Because the devices frequently ask e-mail servers whether they have new e-mails, Microsoft will have what is effectively a push e-mail system.

Companies can deploy Windows Mobile-equipped devices without buying an additional server or middleware application from a third party.

E-mail messages are sent directly over the mobile phone network from the corporate Microsoft Exchange server to the Windows Mobile device. There is no need for a network operations centre to route e-mail messages to individual devices.

However, corporate users need Mobile 5.0 phones to constantly send data packets so that their e-mail servers can identify individual mobile devices.

Each data packet that the device sends to its e-mail server carries a data charge. Companies that decide to deploy Windows Mobile devices could potentially use more data than companies that use Blackberry devices.

Windows Mobile smartphone devices, such as the Qtek 8310 and the XDA Mini S, have more powerful processors than other devices so that they can handle data-intensive, potentially large applications and e-mail attachments.

The availability of attachments on mobiles, however, creates a problem for corporate users who want a transparent flat-rate tariff for their mobile deployment.

Clearly, users sending and receiving large Powerpoint, PDF or Excel files will quickly use more data than a Blackberry user.

Microsoft and network operators have yet to decide how much users will be charged. But the potentially higher data costs of the Microsoft approach must be assessed against the running costs of the Blackberry.

Gartner research director Monica Basso said, "Network operations centre-based architectures [such as Blackberry] have potentially higher costs because of service charges covering the cost of the centre and additional infrastructure.

"There is also greater potential for unreliability. This risk can be mitigated by adding redundant equipment, but it remains more complex than the approach in which enterprise, mobile operator and wireless device are connected by the basic internet."

Nokia's mobile e-mail system

Nokia launched its push e-mail system last autumn. It has yet to announce any deployments with companies based in the UK, but the software is designed to work with any Microsoft e-mail server.

Nokia's system uses software called Nokia Business Centre to connect to the company e-mail servers. Mobile devices constantly send small data packets to Nokia Business Centre. When the company server has an e-mail message for a user, Nokia Business Centre will forward it to their mobile device.

Nokia Business Centre also compresses e-mail messages to reduce data traffic over the GPRS network.

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