First Look & Podcast: Google Apps To Support BlackBerry Enterprise Server

It's the week of May 4th and if you're down at RIM's annual user conference in Orlando, you might be wondering what some Google-folk are doing there circulating amongst all those BlackBerry-lovers. Answer: They're giving enterprises yet another reason to swap Google Apps' cloud-based email, calendaring, and contact management for their on-premises installations of Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes. I've been t
It's the week of May 4th and if you're down at RIM's annual user conference in Orlando, you might be wondering what some Google-folk are doing there circulating amongst all those BlackBerry-lovers. Answer: They're giving enterprises yet another reason to swap Google Apps' cloud-based email, calendaring, and contact management for their on-premises installations of Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes. I've been testing the new technology and have a podcast interview with Google's Raju Gulabani.Earlier this year, I wrote about the top 10 reasons you should outsource your enterprise email to Gmail now. One of those was Reason #7: Go Mobile Without The BS. What I meant by that was that you could get your Google Apps email delivered to your BlackBerry without needing a BS (a BlackBerry enterprise Server, aka "BES").

A BES server is what many enterprises use to keep their Exchange and Lotus Notes users' inboxes, calendars, and contact lists in synch with their BlackBerries. In addition to what your on-premises email solution is costing your company every year in licensing fees, hardware maintenance, staff, etc, a BES server isn't cheap. From my last post, I wrote:

According to Research in Motion's Web site, if you were to go out today and add a BlackBerry Enterprise Server to your system for 101 users, the cost would be $2,999 (for the BES with one client license) plus $5,999 (for an additional 100 client licenses). That's approximately $89 per user, which is $39 more than the total cost per user per year for the Premier Edition of Google Apps itself.

But the truth be told, even though Google offers Gmail users a way to integrate their BlackBerries with their Gmail and Google Calendars, that integration isn't for everybody. It involves Google-provided applications and for people who want to use the native applications that are already on-board their BlackBerries (because of how slick those applications really are), there was really no way to keep Google's servers in synch with those on-board applications. That is, until now.

As Google Apps director of product management Raju Gulabani explained it to me in today's podcast interview (just press the miniature play button) about Google Apps Support for RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server, Google didn't ask RIM to come up with another SKU for its BES servers (there are separate SKUs for the BES servers that support Exchange vs. Lotus Notes). Instead, Google developed a shim called the Google Apps Connector For BlackBerry Enterprise Server that emulates a Microsoft Exchange server. So, why a shim instead of working with the folks in Waterloo (RIM's hometown) to come up with a new BlackBerry Enterprise Server that explicitly supports Google's Servers? And why emulate an Exchange Server instead of Lotus Notes?

Think about it. Ever since Google Apps arrived on the scene, Google has been hard at work trying to make the transition path from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps Email as friction-free as possible. Emulating an Exchange Server is a brilliant move. If you're just now building out a Google Apps installation and have no legacy to worry about, then you can buy the BES server for Exchange, slap the connector in, and you're off to the races the same as you would be if there was a separate SKU just for Google Apps. But, if you're an existing Exchange shop and you're contemplating a migration to Google Apps, you just keep your existing BES server in place and point it at Google's servers (in addition to your Exchange servers). According to Google, a BES server can simultaneously support an Exchange Server and a Google Apps installation at the same time.

For the last week or so, I've been testing a beta version of the connector (Google doesn't expect to ship the software until July). I don't have the resources to run my own BES server so Google set one up in its datacenter to integrate my TechWeb-provided BlackBerry 8700c (the AT&T version) with my Google Apps account. Once everything was up and running, I was able for the first time to use the BlackBerry's native mail application to send and receive email from my Google Apps account. One of the major benefits of using the BlackBerry's native mail application has to do with how it's integrated into the Blackberry's on-board phone.

Prior to this test, when I was using Google's downloadable email client for the BlackBerry, there was pretty much no integration from a contact management point of view between the phone and the e-mail client. If a phone call came into my Blackberry and I wanted to add that person to my address book, it would add that person to the BlackBerry's native address book. But if I wanted to do the same thing with an email (add the sender to my address book), the downloadable Gmail client would add that sender to a different address book; Google's address book. In this scenario, you lose one of the important benefits of the BlackBerry's phone/email integration: the ability to easily reply to a phone call with an email or the ability to easily reply to an email with a phone call.

Now that Google supports the BlackBerry enterprise server, not only is the phone integrated with email in way that Research in Motion intended them to be, a newly created contact off a recently received phone call is automatically synchronized back to the contact management database that's stored within Google Apps. According to Gulabani, the support of RIM's BES server also means that an enterprise's BlackBerry users will also have access to the company's global address book (meaning that users have to personally manage fewer contacts themselves). Global address book access is however dependent on an active data connection.

While being able to natively use the Blackberry's native apps will be a huge boon to users who would never want to give that up (if that's what it took to move to Google Apps), there are still a few downsides. For example, Gmail has always done email a bit differently than Exchange and Lotus Notes. For example, Gmail doesn't have folders. Instead, it has labels and users can assign multiple labels to any email. When labeled-email is synched into a traditional email system, those labels are mapped to folders. The BlackBerry's native email application allows users to file email into folders, but only one folder at a time. In other words, if you're reading an email on your BlackBerry and want to file it into multiple folders so that it appears under multiple labels when that email is synched back to the Gmail servers, you can't do that.

However, if you are reading an email on Gmail's servers and you assign multiple labels to it, the BlackBerry client will respect those assignments and you will see that email listed under multiple folders.

According to Gulabani, calendar synch won't be fully operational until later this year. For example, any appointments that are made while working through Gmail's Web-interface will synch out to a BlackBerry's calendaring application. However, if you open an email invitation to a meeting on your BlackBerry, you will not be able to RSVP that invitation in a way that synchs back to the servers. Likewise, any new appointments that are recorded into the BlackBerry's calendar will not be replicated back to Google's servers.

In what some of the harder-core GMail and Google Apps users might say is a step backwards, another "vestige" of the traditional approach to email that users will have to live with is the lack of email threading -- a part of the Gmail experience that Google calls "the conversation." If you're familiar with how Gmail works, you'll know that it keeps threads together in packages called "conversations." If I send an email to you and you write back to me, Gmail sees that as a conversation and keeps the messages together. If there's no activity in that conversation for a few days, it will begin to scroll down as newer conversations get added to the top of your inbox. But the minute there's new activity on an old conversation, that old conversation springs back to the top of your inbox making it very easy to access and act on any one of older messages in the thread.

The BlackBerry client handles email the old-fashioned way (which is how many people still prefer it anyway). There's no threading or grouping of emails into conversations. If there's a flurry of emails that would normally constitute a thread, those emails flow into the BlackBerry email client as distinctly separate entries (as they would into just about any email client). If you read the most recent entry, you may have to back all the way out to the inbox and scroll down to the other entries to see who else said what about the topic at hand. Most people are used to this way of accessing their email. Gmail die-hards like TechWeb's Jen Pahlka who recently tweeted "Once you've used Gmail, Outlook is simply maddening. I use both every day and can't take the clunkiness. Aargh" may see their fingernails curling in frustration.

One requirement, if you're interested in using Google's new connector, is that your Google Apps installation must be a Premier installation (the one that costs $50 per user per year).

Be sure to give the podcast a listen. Gulabani talks about how, because of the new integration with BES, the BES server can be used to distribute and update other Google downloads like Google's Mapping application to BlackBerry users. Also, he talks about some scenarios where it actually makes sense to keep the Google Gmail download on your BlackBerry and use it for certain tasks.

Editor's Choice
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing