A glimpse at a true superphone

iPhone: the mobile Holy Grail?

IPhone, along with ultra-converged handsets shown at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) from Nokia, Samsung, and others, all look like the devices I have longed to bring with me on the road. Finally, I've got a shot at that mobile Holy Grail: a device that gives me the freedom to leave everything else at home, a device that's as useful in my kitchen on my wireless LAN as it is in a taxicab on the cellular network. I am the perfect customer for superphones except for one apparently hard-to-meet demand: A mobile messaging device, no matter how fancy, must meet the standard set eight or nine years ago by the two-way pager.

BlackBerry's primitive roots, like our own, are responsible for its survival. The modern BlackBerry is an adaptation of BlackBerry's original two-way pager, which operated on the dedicated (not cellular) low-speed networks used to carry simple numeric pages. The paging networks were updated to increase bandwidth and to create upstream channels for data coming from handsets. Emergency workers at the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina disaster sites would have been cut off from co-workers without seemingly archaic paging networks and devices that link to it. Cell networks crowd rapidly and are overly sensitive to buildings and interference. A BlackBerry equipped solely for paging networks shares the core features, look, and feel of the predominant BlackBerry phone/messenger that runs on cellular data network, and except for the color display, shape, and auxiliary features, the BlackBerry has not changed since it was a pager.

Let's make a distinction between the popular and misused phrase "push e-mail" and what I'll call guaranteed messaging. BlackBerry provides guaranteed delivery of messages, reliable and immediate device presence detection, and automatic message queuing at the wireless network (as opposed to Internet mail server) level, all made possible by a hub-and-spoke topology. The hub is BlackBerry's NOC (Network Operations Center), and the spokes are wireless operators. All traffic to and from BlackBerry devices is routed by cellular carriers through the BlackBerry NOC. As you wander in and out of tower range and as signal strength changes, the network and the device adapt to move as much data as they can, at whatever speed they can, constantly and in the background. You never get a fragmented or garbled message, and you get immediate acknowledgement on your device when your outgoing message has reached the NOC and is queued for delivery.

Push e-mail often refers to a technique of using SMS (short message service) to notify your phone that it's time to pull e-mail from your inbox. The message that you need to see might be number 80 of the 118 messages awaiting you on your mail server. If your plane pushes back in the middle of downloading message number 78, what happens when you land five hours later is determined by your device's firmware. Every new BlackBerry message, not merely a notification of its availability, is delivered the instant it hits the NOC if you're in-network, or the message waits at the NOC for your BlackBerry to appear on the cellular network so that message transfers can pick up precisely where they left off. That's exactly what I need, and the fact that millions of BlackBerry users have eschewed fancier phones indicates that they need it, too.

At the iPhone announcement, Steve Jobs said that Apple's superphone will use a push e-mail service provided free by Yahoo. Maybe Yahoo has advanced messaging to improve on nine-year-old concepts. I'm ready. So very ready. But to date, the closest I've seen to BlackBerry requires proprietary and expensive behind-the-firewall or third-party-hosted services. BlackBerry has the advantage, unfair if you choose to see it as such, of ubiquitous buy-in by wireless operators, without whose engagement the BlackBerry network would not function. Operators had to add equipment, plans. and support services to their networks to make BlackBerry work. That's effort that operators aren't likely to take up again for another player, even to sell ultramodern, pretty, and expensive phones.

BlackBerry does license its technology as software to handset makers, and by the vendor's telling, for free. But it isn't used as bragging rights because, after all, turning your smartphone or superphone into a BlackBerry risks that your customer's next device will be a BlackBerry. I'm sure that a new solution, one that reaches beyond the concept of two-way paging and yet works the instant you remove your device from its box, is out there in someone's imagination. I can imagine solutions myself, but my imagination can't push past the limitations of the cellular data network and Internet e-mail protocols. My challenge to phone manufacturers is this: Replace my BlackBerry, please. And let me leave my notebook at home for one trip in three.

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