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Moving your Blackberry to Google Apps? Some things I learned along the way

If you ended up at this blog post, there’s a good chance that you are a long-time Blackberry user like myself who is either thinking about moving over to Google Apps or have already done it. Before we pulled the plug last week on our BES-based deployment for our boutique healthcare technology business, I did as much homework as I could. Oddly, in spite of the millions of users out there who have Blackberry’s tied to a BES and Exchange server, I was hard pressed to find anyone who had the complete picture of doing this type of migration cleanly. Frankly, I was nervous. Now that our migration is done, I feel compelled to share some things I learned along the way.

Our Goal: Retain as Much Continuity as Possible for Mobile Users
Trying to maintain a continuously synchronized wireless environment for our Blackberry users was an important goal for me. I wanted it to be as BES-like on the user side as possible. At this point, we’re most of the way there. If I were starting from scratch, here’s what our “To Do” list would have looked like. Note, that if you are not coming from a BES-based environment, this post is not for you.

  1. Migrate users Exchange data to Google Apps first. No matter how you slice and dice it, moving a mailbox that has been building up over many years can be messy, especially if a Blackberry is involved. The key here is create a single master repository and make sure things look they way you want it. There are many ways of doing this, including Google’s new Exchange-based mechanism; however, I found that using Google’s IMAP migration tool was cleanest for us.
  2. Clean calendar and contacts migration can be tricky. For calendaring and contacts, after many experiments we found that doing .csv-based uploads was also cleanest (and yes we tried Google Apps sync). As hard as Google engineers have tried to make this easy, Outlook/Exchanged based mailbox data structures can get screwed up over time, especially if users have ever had any kind of plugins involved, or have ever used 3rd party synchronization tools. I found that using .csv was fast and accurate with the least amount of heartache. There are some short coming to this (recurring meetings will get replicated, rather than retain their recurrence), but I’m not sorry we did it this way. If you decide to do the the .csv thing, make sure your users specify a wide data range if they want to preserve past and future calendar entries (e.g. we chose 2/1/2006 – 2/1/2012). If you’ve never done this before, you can try this recipe
  3. Break the connection between the Blackberry device and the BES. For the enterprise, the Blackberry Enterprise Server is the secret sauce for management, control, and security. Fortunately, our former Exchange provider AppRiver doesn’t lock down the devices security policy wise on their hosted BES. In the event, that you find yourself with devices that have a BES security policy, you will want the BES admin to send a blank security policy to the device. If for whatever reason you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have access to the BES admin, this link details how you can roll your own without help of the BES. We were determined to not completely wipe the devices, but if your users can deal with that, a complete wipe is probably not a bad idea.
  4. Prepare a machine with a copy of a recent copy of the Blackberry desktop software. In order to avoid duplication of messages during initial synchronization with Google Apps, I advise wiping the “messages,” “address book,” and “calendar” databases off of the Blackberry’s you’re working with. Again, the best data integrity will come from having one master and making Google be it made the most sense to me. If your users must have access to their old mail on their device, skip clearing the messages database. Some other things to keep in mind as you approach this:
    1. Turn off wireless reconciliation for each of the core databases. This link will show you how. If you don’t do this, you will not be able to clear the databases using the desktop manager
    2. Wiping the databases entails using the Backup and Restore feature in the desktop software. Not a bad idea to make one last backup of the device databases and save them to somewhere safe. Use the Advanced option described here to clear the databases from the device (this link only describes how to do the address book, but you can apply the process to the other databases too).
  5. Delete the “Desktop” service book from the devices. There are many sets of instructions on the net on how to do this. Here’s one in case you can’t find this on your own. This step allows the device to forget about it’s former partnership with a BES.
  6. Make sure to enable IMAP in the respective user’s Google Apps Gmail account. This is not turned on by default, so  you will need to go into the user’s email settings as described here.
  7. Get your users BIS credentials and Setup Up Each User with IMAP. If a device never had personal email addresses associated with it, creating a new account is pretty straight forward. If your users have already been using their devices for “personal” email, chances are they set up an account with the Blackberry Internet service from the device itself. Ask the users if they remember the users name/password combination (many will not, and you may end up calling the carrier to find out). Keep in mind that the end point for this migration, will be an IMAP connected Blackberry that uses the Blackberry Internet Services (BIS), and you will need to either create a new BIS account (for the user that hasn’t already done this), or associate Google Apps IMAP configuration with the device’s PIN. In practice, it is much easier to do from the web, rather than from the device. You can find links to the respective carriers here. While it is possible to do this from a wizard on the device, the web-based interface is much easier, especially if one using a touch-screen based Blackberry.
  8. Resend the Service Books from the BIS. On the newer version of the BIS, you will find this option under the “Help” menu. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, this kind of completes the housekeeping in converting over to BIS-based email.
  9. Install the Enhanced Gmail plugin.  This Blackberry plug in brings the Gmail experience to your device, allows you to archive emails, use labels, and look at threaded conversations in a gmail-centric way. If you ask around you will find that some people love it, and some hate it. Usability wise it doesn’t feel very Blackberry like, and some have reported that it’s slow.  I’d suggest installing it, as it doesn’t take away the normal methods of interacting with email on your Blackberry (the native email now configured for IMAP and Gmail will still work). Details on setting up the plugin are here.
  10. Install Google Sync on the Blackberry devices. This device side application will make your device whole again as it relates to calendar and contacts. In practice it works quite well and you won’t notice it’s there. There’s a link on this page that will send an SMS with a link to the mobile application set up. Once setup this runs in the background in provides a 2-way synchronization of the core PDA apps. Heads up, Notes, and Tasks will not sync.  According to Google the “automatic” setting (the default), syncs every 2 hours, or every time you change an event on the device.
  11. Call your carrier and change the data service for the Blackberry to the PDA plan, rather than the corporate or BES-type plan. In the case of AT&T this downgrade saved us $15 per month per user.
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