The Google App Connector for BlackBerry Enterprise Server makes Google’s e-mail services a little more compelling for businesses, allowing customers to keep using their fully managed mobile e-mail platform with the search giant’s cloud-based e-mail solution.
Tying together BlackBerry devices and management infrastructure with Google’s for-pay e-mail services, the Connector enables push e-mail, global address lists and full synchronization of Google e-mail and contacts–but only partial calendar sync–from the cloud to the corresponding native applications on a company’s managed BlackBerry mobile devices.
However, in the BlackBerry’s native e-mail application, Google can’t offer all the services and features users have come to expect from Gmail. As such, Google expects that its own mobile applications for BlackBerry–like its Gmail client–will play a complementary role on the mobile device going forward.
Google representatives expect that the Google Apps Connector, which is in beta now, will be available as a free add-on to customers of Google Apps Premier and Education Editions in July.
Mobile administrators would install the Google Apps Connector for BES on their existing BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) for Microsoft Exchange. Google has tested the Connector with BES for Exchange 4.16. The Connector essentially fools the BES software into thinking it is talking to Exchange Server when it is actually communicating with Google’s e-mail servers using OAuth and Google’s sync and data protocols.
BES with the Google Apps Connector may not scale to the level that mobile e-mail administrators have grown accustomed to with their current e-mail infrastructure. Google says it supports only 250 users per BES server due to the architecture and memory footprint of the Connector, although that number may grow down road as Google has more time to evaluate performance characteristics. For now, however, additional BES servers must be added to support more than 250 users.
Google officials claim that other than a few initial setup steps, the bulk of the administrative work to configure Google App accounts or provision Google software (like Google Maps or Google Mobile App) to BlackBerry devices is done via RIM’s familiar BlackBerry Manager.
To try out an end user’s experience with the Connector, Google provided me with a BlackBerry Curve 8900 preconfigured to work with a test Google Apps domain and BES server–both of which Google configured and maintained. As such, I was not able to validate Google’s statements about the server-side installation, policy management or device configuration in this test.
Familiar Experience on BlackBerry
On the device side, however, I found the Google-powered experience to be a familiar one on a BlackBerry. I could use the device’s native e-mail, calendar and contact applications for most things.
Synchronization of actions between the device and Google cloud happens in a timely fashion in most cases. When reading an e-mail on the BlackBerry device, the same e-mail would be marked read on the Gmail Web interface right away. Also, I found that I could archive or “star” an e-mail on the device by simply moving it to the corresponding folder. Google also claims that the Connector will synchronize labels from Gmail, although I could not find any evidence that this works at this time.
Users will likely find they still may need the Gmail Mobile App on their device for some functionality. For instance, the BlackBerry device maintains only a few days of e-mails (depending on configuration). Gmail and Google Apps users may be well accustomed to being able to search quickly through gigabytes and months of collected communications. These users will need to rely on Google’s client application for that kind of activity.
Contact synchronization occurs bi-directionally. Updates made on-device replicate immediately to the cloud and can include all contact details plus any configured contact photos attached to an entry. In addition to the users’ own contact lists, administrators can create a Global Address List for a list of contacts common to everyone in the e-mail domain.
Calendar integration with Gmail services is a little less robust, offering only one-way synchronization from the Web calendar to the device. Therefore, while users can input calendar entries on their devices, these updates will not synchronize back to Google Calendar.
Raju Gulabani, director of product management for Google Apps, said the company’s research showed that the majority of users use the device calendar in this way, so read-only access is acceptable. To my ears, however, it sounds more like two-way calendar sync simply wasn’t ready in time for Google’s desired launch date. Indeed, Gulabani said that two-way calendar sync should be added as an enhancement down the road.
In tests, I found calendar and contact synchronizations do not get pushed to the device like e-mail does, but instead they piggyback with push mail. According to Google representatives, the “presence of an e-mail is an indication that the user wants to be notified of the calendar changes. If no e-mail is present, we wait for next scheduled sync to save on battery life.”