How a BlackBerry Works


The BlackBerry Storm is one of the newer BlackBerry models. See more cell phone pictures.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

When the BlackBerry debuted in 1999, carrying one was a hallmark of powerful executives and savvy technophiles. People who purchased one either needed or wanted constant access to e-mail, a calendar and a phone. The BlackBerry's manufacturer, Research in Motion (RIM), reported only 25,000 subscribers in that first year. But since then, its popularity has skyrocketed.

In September 2005, RIM reported 3.65 million subscribers, and users describe being addicted to the devices. The BlackBerry has even brought new slang to the English language. There are words for flirting via BlackBerry (blirting), repetitive motion injuries from too much BlackBerry use (BlackBerry thumb) and unwisely using one's BlackBerry while intoxicated (drunk-Berrying). While some people credit the BlackBerry with letting them get out of the office and spend time with friends and family, others accuse them of allowing work to infiltrate every moment of free time.

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In this article, we'll examine the "push" technology at the center of the device's popularity, RIM's former dispute with patent holder NTP Incorporated and its current dispute with Visto Corporation. We'll also explore BlackBerry hardware and software.

"Push" Technology

A PDA does a lot of the same things a BlackBerry does, and the PDA made its

debut several years before the BlackBerry. But until recently, the only way to make the information on most PDAs match the

information on a person's computer was to automatically or manually sync the PDA. This could be time-consuming and inconvenient. It could also lead to exactly the conflicts that having a PDA is supposed to prevent. For example, a manager might schedule a meeting on the PDA, not knowing that an assistant had just scheduled a meeting for the same time on a networked calendar.

A BlackBerry, on the other hand, does everything a PDA can do, and it syncs itself continually through push technology. BlackBerry Enterprise Server or Desktop Redirector software "pushes," or redirects, new e-mail, calendar updates, documents and other data straight to the user over the Internet and the cell phone network.­

First, the software senses that a new message has arrived or the data has changed. Then, it compresses, packages and redirects the information to the handheld unit. The server uses hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and transmission control protocol (TCP) to communicate with the handhelds. It also encrypts the data with triple data encryption standard (DES) or advanced encryption standard (AES).

The software determines the capabilities of the BlackBerry and lets people establish criteria for the information they want to have delivered. The criteria can include message type and size, specific senders and updates to specific programs or databases.

Once all of the parameters have been set, the software waits for updated content. When a new message or other data arrives, the software formats the information for transmission to and display on the BlackBerry. It packages e-mail messages into a kind of electronic envelope so the user can decide whether to open or retrieve the rest of the message.

The BlackBerry listens for new information and notifies the user when it arrives by vibrating, changing an icon on the screen or turning on a light. The BlackBerry does not poll the server to look for updates. It simply waits for the update to arrive and notifies the user when it does. With e-mail, a copy of each message also goes to the user's inbox on the computer, but the e-mail client can mark the message as read once the user reads it on the BlackBerry.

People describe BlackBerry use as an addiction, and this is why. Not only do they give people constant access to their phones, they also provide continual updates to e-mail, calendars and other tools.

Lately, RIM had been dealing with issues of patent infringement. We'll look at that next.

The Patent Dispute

Patent law can be tricky, and the claims companies make in their patents can be hard to quantify. But here is the basic dilemma that RIM and the BlackBerry were facing -- NTP Incorporated holds several patents for wireless e-mail technology. RIM's push technology is similar to, but more complex than, the technology NTP has patented. NTP had accused RIM of patent infringement, and judges and juries agreed. The patent dispute and a delayed rollout of new BlackBerry models caused a slight slowdown in RIM's rapid growth.

The dispute between NTP and RIM started in 2001, when NTP sued RIM. Courts have generally ruled in NTP's favor, granting monetary settlements and injunctions against RIM. RIM, however, has appealed the rulings and had requested a review of NTP's patents. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has overturned several of the patents in question.

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In November of 2005, a United States district judge ruled that a previous monetary settlement between the two companies was not enforceable. On January 23, 2006, the United States Supreme Court turned down RIM's request to review the district court ruling. The big concern was that this decision would lead to an injunction prohibiting BlackBerry sales and service in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice requested a 90-day stay for essential government employees in the event of an injunction. RIM suggested the possibility of a software work-around that would not infringe on NTP's patents, and RIM and NTP began negotiations through a court-appointed mediator.

RIM and NTP have settled their dispute. The cost -- $612.5 million. The result -- NTP grants RIM a license to NTP's patents. According to a press release issued by both companies on March 3, 2006, here's the agreement:


"The licensing and settlement agreement relates to all patents owned and controlled by NTP and covers all of RIM's products, services and technologies. NTP grants RIM an unfettered right to continue its business, including its BlackBerry® related business. The resolution permits RIM and its partners to sell RIM products and services completely free and clear of any claim by NTP, including any claims that NTP may have against wireless carriers, channel partners, suppliers or customers in relation to RIM products or services, (including BlackBerry Connect and Built-In technology), or in relation to third party products and services, to the extent they are used in connection with RIM products and services."

Next, we'll look at the BlackBerry's hardware and software.

Blackberry Hardware

We took apart a BlackBerry similar to this 6700 model.
We took apart a BlackBerry similar to this 6700 model.
Photo courtesy RIM

A BlackBerry can do everything that a cell phone can do, including sending text messages via SMS. It's also an organizer, a calendar, an e-mail client, a Web browser, a two-way pager and a palm-top computer. Although it can do some of the same things a computer can, it doesn't have to be in a WiFi hot spot to work -- it uses the cell phone network as well as 802.11b WLAN. To do all this, it combines the components of a cell phone and a PDA.

Some BlackBerry models have the same form factor and components as a smart phone. Others look more like PDAs or palmtop computers. Specific components can vary from one model to another, but in general the visible parts of a BlackBerry are:

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  • LCD display
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Click wheel
  • On/off, escape and other keys
  • Headset jack
  • USB charger connection
  • Antenna (interior on some models)
  • Indicator light to advise users of new messages or data

From the outside of the unit, you can also see where the microphone and speaker are located as well as where to access the rechargeable lithium ion battery.

A printed circuit board connects everything inside the case, including:

The internal parts of the BlackBerry.
The internal parts of the BlackBerry.

Unlike many earlier PDAs, which used touch screens as a user interface, the BlackBerry has a keyboard designed for use with the thumbs. This keyboard operates much like the keyboard of your computer, with one notable difference. Most computer keyboards use dome switches, and each key lies over one switch. Pressing the key activates the switch. In a BlackBerry, however, rows of dome switches lie between the rows of keys. Each key has actuators that press one or more of the switches adjacent to it.

The underside of the BlackBerry keyboard.
The underside of the BlackBerry keyboard.

The BlackBerry's software uses a lookup table to match each letter with a specific combination of dome switches. This layout uses fewer switches, allowing a smaller keyboard.

BlackBerry smart phones have even less space for a keyboard, so each key corresponds to more than one letter. Predictive text software called SureType lets a person type normally and determines the right word as the person types. People can also use multiple taps on each key to select different letters as most people currently do to send text messages on their cell phones.

Next, we'll look at the software that drives the BlackBerry.

BlackBerry Software

In addition to the push technology discussed earlier, a BlackBerry requires a variety of sofware on the handheld unit itself and on servers and desktops. The devices are part of a network that includes handhelds, handheld software, desktop software and server software.

The BlackBerry unit uses a proprietary BlackBerry operating system and usually includes e-mail, Web browsing, instant messaging and personal information management (PIM) software. Third-party developers have created a wide variety of other programs for the BlackBerry, like games and productivity applications.

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Other third-party programs are customized applications that let people get data and updates from proprietary sales, data collection and other business software. Many of these use a browser interface and e-mail messages for data retrieval. Users get an e-mail message with a link they can click to make a phone call, view data or log in to a service. SSL and TLS encryption protect information and data.

Since a BlackBerry has less memory and processing power than a computer, each of these programs has to be relatively small and efficient. Web pages have to be simple and not rely on frames or applets, and they're most effective when they use minimal colors. BlackBerry developers use a Java development environment that lets them simulate a BlackBerry and make sure their programs are compatible.

Businesses that employ multiple BlackBerry users often use the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software to manage each BlackBerry's connection with the corporate network. The software runs behind the corporate firewall, and pushes information to the handheld units. System administrators can also use the server-side software to update BlackBerry units wirelessly.

Individual users can run BlackBerry Desktop Redirector software on their computers, which plays the same role as the Enterprise Server but on a smaller scale. The Desktop Redirector sends information in small pieces so it doesn't overload the person's connection or deliver unnecessary information to the BlackBerry. The computer has to be on and running in order for the redirector to work.

Read on for lots more information about PDAs, smart phones, the BlackBerry patent dispute and other topics.

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More Great Links

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