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BlackBerry Protect: Mobile Data Safety for the Masses

Research In Motion has announced an invite-only, limited beta for its new BlackBerry Protect, with a more general, open beta later this year. Protect lets end users manage their own device for safety -- it can help find a lost BlackBerry, protect its data, and perform backup and restore. Best of all, it's free!

BlackBerry Protect: Mobile Data Safety for the Masses
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BlackBerry Protect: Mobile Data Safety for the Masses

For those enamored of iPhones and Android smart phones, or those who heed those enamored of them, it probably boggles the mind that BlackBerry is still the dominant smart phone force, especially in the enterprise. Enterprises care more about managing devices that have become the predominant form of communication and data access. They have to, by law in most cases. But even consumers want to safeguard their mobile data. To that end, on Monday Research In Motion unveiled Protect, extending some enterprise capabilities (the ability to lock down or find a lost device, and to backup, restore and wipe its data) to what the company calls "prosumers" -- users not necessarily tied to a corporation running RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), but instead to BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS).

While Protect's features are a far cry from what BES offers (including the ability to push out policies that control phone use down to the device and application level), it's still pretty impressive, and it will certainly be a credible substitution for smaller businesses and consumers. Similar third-party services exist, both for BlackBerry and other smartphone platforms, but those either cost more money, or get bundled with the phone (in the case of Motorola's Motorblur). Apple's MobileMe runs $99 per year. Most service provider data plans for the BlackBerry include BIS support (Research In Motion actually runs BIS) for secure push messaging, making Protect essentially free.

Protect addresses one of the most common security concerns: the lost or misplaced device. Protect can locate a phone on a map (using the device GPS), activate a loud ring so you know where it is, and send a screen message with instructions in case someone else has found it. Or, the user can lock the device, change the password when doing so, or perform a remote device wipe. Users run and activate these features from the Protect web portal on a desktop.

Protect's backup and restore capability provides granular control for the end-user, including exactly what should be backed up (from contacts and schedules to memos, browser bookmarks and even text messages), and when, including choosing whether to back up a BlackBerry while it's roaming; you can choose, for instance, to only allow backup via WiFi -- users need to consider what their data plan is in making these choices. It also balances backup over a 24 hour period as necessary, for bandwidth efficiency.

The restore feature lets you bring back data, so if you've lost your device, you can restore that phone's data to a new BlackBerry (or the old one if you find it). In fact, you can manage up to five devices with one Protect account (Research In Motion says that it's more common in Europe to carry more than one BlackBerry device).

All of the movement of data is done securely, as you would expect. The data (from a backup) is stored encrypted, and RIM says it keeps the encryption keys in a separate data center. The data is also encrypted for transit.

I got a sneak preview of Protect, which will require Blackberry OS 4.6 or higher, and runs on 8000 and 9000 series devices. Setup on the phone pretty straightforward, but as with all new things BlackBerry, you'll have to sign up for, or already have the single sign-on BlackBerry ID. The device setup lets you pick your backup frequency and make similar choices. Then it just runs. (As with many BlackBerry applications that have direct interaction with the phone, Protect requires a reboot after installation.)

(You can see some of this in action in both the slide show and video included here.)

Most of the work happens on the web portal (it worked in Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox and Chrome without a problem), and everything worked as promised -- ringing rang, screen messages popped up, and my device was located correctly on all of the various map types offered. I set up backup to work only when my Bold 9700 was connected via WiFi, and I tested restore and remote wipe as well. Restore, by the way, includes all resident databases, which includes PIM data and device settings. Remote wipe removes all the data, including -- if you like -- what's on the microSD card.

Research In Motion said that operator support integration is expected as part of this offering, and users can work with the carrier to lock a device, but not to do a remote wipe. The company also said that it expects all new BlackBerry handsets to come with Protect pre-loaded by the Winter.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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