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Voda's Blackberry alternative hits the UK

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Vodafone UK’s announcement of its own branded Blackberry alternative for the mainstream market might seem like old news. Based on technology from Visto, other subsidiaries in the group launched what is being referred to as “Vodafone Business Email” a few months ago.

Quite why the UK part of this cellco giant was later to market with this new offering is unclear, but the additional time taken has been used to strengthen the overall solution considerably.

For those that missed the previous announcement, there are three significant things that are worth highlighting about the service originally described. Firstly, it pretty much does the same as the Blackberry solution, in that there is a server that snuggles alongside your existing email server “pushing” messages out to users’ mobile devices as soon as they arrive. Secondly, unlike Blackberry, it was designed from the outset to support a wide range of devices, something that is extremely important for businesses looking to mix and match according to user needs (and economics) as their use of mobile access evolves.

Lastly, the software and service costs are significantly lower. Visto does not impose client access licence (CAL) fees, which experience shows can quickly mount up at £40 plus per user if you scale a Blackberry installation significantly beyond the initial relatively low number of bundled users. Inclusive airtime fees also appear to be less than half of the Blackberry equivalent, which as a recurring element, will have even more impact on cost efficiency.

On this last point of pricing, Vodafone is clearly keen to kick-start activity by waiving server licence fees altogether until 31 May 2006. The major start-up expense is therefore the cost of devices, though even here, businesses with relatively up to date handsets might find that they can just deploy the Visto client onto existing devices and preserve their investment.

And this brings us onto something new that Vodafone UK has blended with the original offering – a device management service.

Other than economics and device choice, this has been one of the biggest blockers to businesses scaling up their use of mobile email. System configuration, software distribution, maintenance, patching and so on are problems IT departments have grappled with for years in the notebook PC domain, but throw multiple operating systems and wildly different form factors and specifications into the mix and it all starts to look very frightening and potentially expensive to look after.

The answer Vodafone has come up with is a complete over the air diagnostic and management solution. The idea is that once you have set up your standard configuration for a specific type of device, you fill out a form that allows Vodafone to capture those settings into its management database as a template. This includes everything from email configuration to the version numbers of both standard and customer specific applications that should be resident on the device. When a new device is then deployed to one of your users, Vodafone can provision it painlessly and reliably over the air on your behalf, with nothing more than a few confirmations and acknowledgements necessary on the part of the user.

Thereafter, Vodafone can schedule interrogations, reconfigurations, software updates, etc according to your instructions, taking copies of your own specific software from you to distribute as necessary. When one of your users calls in for help, the over the air diagnostic and fix-up capability allows the agent to see what’s going on and get things back to your standard configuration there and then, with no need for the user to return to base. There is even the capability for an agent to lock or wipe a device that is lost or stolen.

Again, you might say that none of this is new. Most of the functionality will sound familiar to those running Blackberry installations or specialist management solutions such as Afaria. The significance, however, is that Vodafone is effectively offering this as a low/no cost managed service (depending on contract), which means IT departments have one less thing to worry about when looking at larger scale deployments across a mix of user types.

It has to be said that after a few years of piecemeal propositions, usually with wide open gaps between them, Vodafone is starting to tune into the multi-dimensional nature of implementing IT solutions on a larger scale, which is really the game being played here. What it has come up with in this latest announcement looks pretty comprehensive with thought given to both small as well as large businesses. It will be interesting to see how the customer experience lives up to this as take-up occurs, as it undoubtedly will.

Meanwhile, the obvious question is where this leaves our friends at RIM with the Blackberry offering. Whilst Vodafone swears undying commitment as part of its public line in the interests of customer choice, some of the material presented in support of the announcement, e.g. pricing, speaks for itself. The love-hate relationship between operators and RIM has been fairly common knowledge in mobile industry circles for a long time.

On the one hand, RIM has been great for making the early market and the Blackberry brand acceptance still often represents the path of least resistance when looking for new business sales. But many feel the brand has become too strong for comfort so together with the premium pricing model and restricted device support, many operators, not just Vodafone, have been looking at alternatives to take their customers to the next level of deployment.

From a customer perspective, the one thing for certain is that moves such as Vodafone Business Email are all good news as they drive choice and competition into the market and continue raising the bar in terms of quality and depth of services.

At long last, we seem to be getting there. ®

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