iPassConnect for BlackBerry: Hands-On

Today the vast majority of high-end smartphones support Wi-Fi connectivity. That's because Wi-Fi generally offers faster data-transfers speeds than 3G cellular networks, making for a better mobile experience while reducing strain on wireless carriers' networks and decreasing associated cellular data costs for users.

Few stand to benefit more from the inclusion of Wi-Fi in mobile devices like BlackBerrys than enterprises with large corporate smartphone deployments. That's because free or low-cost Wi-Fi can be employed where available in place of cellular networks, and organizations can choose cheaper wireless service plans for users, potentially saving significant cash over time, while simultaneously providing higher bandwidth for staffers.

Thanks to companies like iPass and its iPass Mobile Office service, connecting to Wi-Fi networks across the globe really couldn't be simpler. iPass Mobile Office customers get access to the company's roughly 140,000 Wi-Fi hotspots at popular establishments such as McDonald's and Starbucks in more than 80 countries.

Today iPass released the brand new iPassConnect for BlackBerry client, which brings the same iPass Wi-Fi connectivity options to BlackBerry devices that are available on Windows Vista, XP and 2000; Max OS X 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6; Symbian S60 Third Generation devices (versions 9.0, 9.1, and 9.2); Windows Mobile 5, 6 and Pocket PC 2003; and the iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, and iPod touch.

iPass was kind enough to pass on iPassConnect for BlackBerry to me before anyone else outside the company, and I spent the last week or so putting the app through the motions. Here's my take on it.

Affordable Pricing

iPassConnect is compatible with all Wi-Fi enabled BlackBerrys running handheld OS v4.5 or higher. And users with Wi-Fi BlackBerrys that support UMA, or Wi-Fi calling, like the BlackBerry Curve 8520, can employ iPass Wi-Fi networks to place voice calls.

The best part about iPassConnect: You have only one "master" login name and password for any and all iPass Wi-Fi networks; no individual user names, passwords or payment details are needed.

And the service is relatively affordable, especially if used frequently. iPass's North American customers pay approximately $36 per user per month under the company's Global 33 Enterprise Flat Rate plan for 100 active users, according to Rick Bilodeau, iPass VP of product and solutions marketing. "Active user pricing" plans mean companies are only charged if specific users log into the iPass network in a given month, so 100-user-plans could actually cover 400 to 500 mobile employees depending on how often they use the service, Bilodeau says.

Volume licensing discounts are available, and the costs cover usage on both notebook and smartphone platforms, so iPass users with BlackBerrys and Mac laptops aren't charged any more than employees with just notebooks.

iPassConnect for BlackBerry is the very first global enterprise Wi-Fi client for BlackBerry smartphones, Bilodeau says. It's meant for the average road-warrior, but international travelers will see the greatest cost-savings benefits, since iPassConnect can vastly reduce international wireless roaming charges, according to Bilodeau.

iPassConnect for BlackBerry can be deployed by IT via BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) so no user intervention is required. Or iPass users can download and install the app themselves via iPass's website or RIM's BlackBerry App World for free.

Here's a quick walkthrough of the iPassConnect for BlackBerry, as well as my first impressions of the app.

Using iPassConnect for BlackBerry

To get connected via iPassConnect for BlackBerry, you locate the nearest iPass Wi-Fi hotspots via the app's built-in hotspot finder. Once the app's open, the hotspot finder can be located by clicking the BlackBerry Menu key and choosing Hotspot Finder.

After typing in a city, airport, address or zip code into the hotspot finder, iPass delivers a list of nearby Wi-Fi networks, if available, as well as approximate distances to those networks. You can click a specific listing for address and contact information, as well as details on the specific establishment. And a "View Map" option shows directions on Google Maps.

The first time you use iPassConnect for BlackBerry, you're prompted for a configuration code, as well as your iPass username and password, all of which should be provided by an IT administrator. Credentials can be saved so there's no need to repeatedly enter user names and passwords.

Once you're within range of an iPass hotspot, you simply turn on your device's Wi-Fi and click the iPassConnect app-icon to open the program. If the Wi-Fi network's open, i.e. it doesn't require a login, and you've been there before, you'll immediately see a "Launch Browser" option within iPassConnect.

If you're using iPassConnect for BlackBerry in a new location, you'll have to select the network you wish to connect to and then login. First, click the "Select Network" option and walk through the normal BlackBerry Wi-Fi network detection process. When the device detects the Wi-Fi network you want, click to select it and you'll return to the iPass app. (Note: You can tell if the Wi-Fi network you're connecting to is an iPass hotspot if there's an iPass logo directly to the left of the network name on the iPass Connect home screen. If you don't see an iPass logo, you may not be able to connect to that network using the app.)

After detecting an iPass hotspot, connect to the network by clicking the "Login" button on the iPassConnect main screen. A few seconds later, you should see a "Successfully Logged In" status message. If so, you're good to go.

If you receive any sort of error, ensure that your configuration code, user name and password were entered correctly. If you're still unable to connect, check with an administrator to make sure your credentials are correct.

My Take: Pros and Cons

iPassConnect for BlackBerry uses the default Wi-Fi setup features within BlackBerry smartphones, so using this application to detect and connect to a new Wi-Fi network shouldn't feel too different to anyone familiar with the process. This fact combined with the application's intuitive user interface meant I had no problems connecting to compatible iPass Wi-Fi hotspots.

iPass's global network of more than 140,000 hotspots across the globe could be truly valuable to frequent travelers, particularly international ones.

However, I would've liked to see some sort of GPS integration, or at least cell-tower triangulation, with the app's hotspot finder so I didn't need to type in my location every time I searched for a new hotspot.

I also asked iPass about its partnerships with in-flight Wi-Fi providers, but was a bit disappointed to find that though a partnership deal with Aircell is in the works to offer iPass-compatible Wi-Fi to iPass customers during flights, no such service is currently available. That's a shame and a major gap in iPass's strategy, considering it's catering to frequent air travelers. As is, iPass customers must still pay for in-flight Wi-Fi.

The BlackBerry app rounds out iPass's Mobile Office lineup by adding BlackBerry smartphones to the company's existing support for all major laptop and smartphone platforms. Overall, I was impressed with the service, and I highly recommend it to frequent travelers, though there's clearly still room for improvement on iPass's part.

This story, "iPassConnect for BlackBerry: Hands-On" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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