Research In Motion launched a free online service for small businesses to help them centrally manage BlackBerry smartphones in the cloud, providing protection for business content saved on the devices.

The service, BlackBerry Management Center, is a cloud-based, small business alternative to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), which has become the gold standard for large companies that want to secure and manage data on BlackBerry smartphones.

BES requires that server hardware and software be installed on a company's premises and incurs costs that are usually out of the reach of smaller companies.

The management center is designed for companies with up to 100 BlackBerry smartphones and that access email from an Internet service provider or use a Web-based email service such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo, a RIM spokesman said. BES, by comparison, can be set up to work with standard workplace push email services such as Outlook.

The management center can be set up to handle either company or employee-owned BlackBerry smartphones.

The service offers automatic wireless backups of the devices on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to prevent data loss. It also provides remote locking of a device that has been stolen or lost. The smartphone's contents also can be wiped clean if needed, including the data on the BlackBerry's MicroSD card.

The management controls also can help a user find a lost device by remotely initiating a ring tone as well as locking it and displaying a message on the home screen that it has been lost.

Like some more expensive management consoles, BlackBerry Management Center helps a user reset a password and can be used to restore device settings and content when replacing or upgrading a device.

The center's web-based management interface also gives a manager the ability to see a user's name, title and the kind of device the user has with options for backup, lockout and other controls.