RIM adds security, click-to-call to BlackBerry apps

Research in Motion is launching several enhancements to its BlackBerry software at the Lotusphere conference this week in an effort to step up its game against Microsoft, Nokia and other rivals.

The updates, coming in new BlackBerry devices and device and server software versions in the first half of this year, will strengthen the platform’s core e-mail capability while adding new messaging, manageability and security features.

RIM pioneered enterprise handheld connectivity with the BlackBerry’s push e-mail system and BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). Competitors have since muscled in on this territory, while RIM has invested in software and devices to expand its appeal to the consumer market. With the new features, the company is looking toward a future in which almost all communication capabilities on the desktop are available on the road through a set of capabilities often called unified communications.

Among key new capabilities are features that merge voice with instant messaging. Users who run IBM Lotus Sametime or Microsoft Live Communications Server will be able to click on an instant-messaging (IM) contact on the BlackBerry phone in order to call them, or convert an ongoing IM session into a voice call. They will also be able to check whether their colleagues are going to be available before they send out meeting requests.

Enhanced e-mail handling will include several new features. Users will be able to search for and retrieve messages on their enterprise e-mail servers that are no longer stored on their BlackBerries. Also, the devices will be able to render HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and rich text e-mail messages, including font colors and styles, images, hyperlinks and other elements. After downloading Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel files, users will now be able to edit them on the BlackBerry, thanks to Documents to Go software from DataViz that is being integrated into the mobile platform.

Even within e-mail encrypted with PGP or S/MIME, BlackBerry users will be able to view attachments, according to the company.

RIM also has some good news for enterprises that want to more easily manage and lock down their employees’ devices. They will be able to drill down and define which applications on a BlackBerry can access its GPS (Global Positioning System) functionality, as well as enable or shut down specific Bluetooth profiles and set how long the device is “discoverable” using Bluetooth. The less time a phone is discoverable by other Bluetooth devices, the less chance an intruder has to hack it, although this method of breaking into a phone hasn’t been widely exploited.

A Web-based device management console is also coming, allowing users to control settings and install software from any Web-connected computer. In addition, administrators will now be able to update users’ devices over the air.

To help third parties develop their own applications for the BlackBerry, RIM also announced the availability of some additional Java Micro Edition APIs (application programming interfaces). They include ones to support developing mobile Web services clients, software that uses MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) and a single application that works for multiple languages and regions.

RIM expects to ship its BES version 4.1.5 software for IBM Lotus Domino and for Microsoft Exchange by the end of February. They will be free upgrades for customers with BES version 4.1.0 or later, while others can buy the upgrade for US$999 or purchase a Technical Support Services contract. The price of the BES for new customers will remain at $3,999 per server, with 20 user licenses included.

Version 4.5 of the BlackBerry device software will be required to use many of the end-user features; it will be available in the first half of the year, depending on carrier. It will be a free download from RIM and carrier Web sites. The ability to edit Word and PowerPoint documents will come with version 4.5, but Excel editing capability will be in a later release, expected in the latter part of this year.

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