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8/22/2011
07:56 AM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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RIM's Secret Weapon: Managing Mobile Devices

CIOs have a mess of smartphones and tablets that employees now bring to work. RIM must come through on its promise to help them with that problem.

Research In Motion's predicament has been very much in the news of late, with analysts debating whether Google’s deal to buy Motorola Mobility helps or hurts the struggling BlackBerry maker, and whether RIM's glitzy new phones can stem its market share losses.

But one essential element of RIM's strategy, at least for business smartphones and tablets, hasn't gotten much attention in the recent discussion. And that’s RIM's plans to create software to manage other companies' smartphones and tablets, and thus make money from business customers even when they opt for iPhones, iPads, and Android phones. BlackBerry has lost the near-lock it once had on business users, which is just one reason RIM had to lay off workers and lower revenue expectations earlier this year.

The mishmash of smartphones and tablets inside companies is causing CIOs serious worry, so there's growing demand for mobile device management. No vendor dominates this still young MDM market, though players include the likes of Good Technology, Sybase (under SAP), and MobileIron. Apple and Google treat the enterprise market as second fiddle to consumers, so this isn't likely their highest priority. And RIM has a reputation for doing smartphone security and compliance well, though only for its own BlackBerry phones.

In the coming months, RIM is promising to introduce MDM software that can manage a range of devices. Whether RIM can cash in depends on whether its executives are truly committed to serving a multi-device world, and not using MDM software as a backdoor to selling more BlackBerry phones or PlayBook tablets. For now, RIM's saying the right things.

"Users have emancipated themselves," says Alan Panezic, RIM VP of software. What he means is that employees are no longer shackled to the company-issued smartphone or tablet. More are being allowed to bring their own devices to work or are demanding more options from company phones, which then leaves the IT team scrambling to manage them for security and compliance. When we surveyed IT pros in 2010 about what MDM features they wanted, the most-cited was remote wipe of data (cited by 72%) and No. 2 was support for multiple devices (62%).

MDM is back-end software that manages the security, downloads, and content flowing onto smartphones and, increasingly, tablets. Key functions include tasks such as wiping data from a lost device, resetting a password, and updating software. RIM has long been known for doing those things very well with its Blackberry Enterprise Server, but BES managed only BlackBerry devices. So RIM acquired Ubitexx in May with plans to provide MDM to multiple devices. "We don't see the world as only one type of device," Panezic says.

In fact, it's interesting that when Panezic talks about mobile devices that will really change how companies operate, he talks about tablets more than smartphones. "If you look at what end users want in a tablet, I can summarize it very briefly as, 'Give me all of the benefits of a smartphone and none of the limitations,'" Panezic says. Those benefits include long battery life, instant-on, fast performance, software that maintains itself, and an app store for personal and business apps. But the smartphone’s small screen size limits its usefulness for many business IT applications. "It's not the same level of general purpose computing device as a laptop," Panezic says.

So has he seen any CIOs buying tablets in bulk, giving one to every salesperson or retail clerk or medical technician? Not yet. "What I'm seeing is a lot of pilot projects and tests," Panezic says.

The biggest reason CIOs aren't doing more, he says, is that there isn't a way to manage tablets as part of the IT infrastructure while still allowing personal use. (I would also add mobile enterprise apps aren't quite ready for prime time yet, though mobility is the no. 1 enterprise software priority for IT teams.) In a management system, IT leaders want one that provides security and control "but has enough programmability and capability so people can think about reinventing the enterprise environment, while also ticking off the fun box," Panezic says. "I don't think people have yet found that ideal combination. We think we're on to that very much."

So there you have RIM’s early vision for mobile device management--one that must be as much about running tablets as it is smartphones.

Is MDM software enough to revive RIM as a growth company? Not on its own. But it’s a huge opportunity, and a critical way for RIM to differentiate itself from Apple and Google, which have a history of putting enterprises far down their priority lists.

RIM certainly could botch this opportunity. First and foremost, it has to actually deliver the software from its Ubitexx acquisition, in a way that measures up to the high expectations CIOs have for BlackBerry Enterprise Server and applies that to other platforms. It has to leapfrog a clutch of MDM vendors already making a name for themselves. It needs to prove its management software won't favor its devices over competitors’ devices. And it needs to prove it's in tune with the wants and needs of tablet buyers, something the woeful sales of its first PlayBook tablet leave in doubt.

CIOs need help with MDM, an ugly and growing problem that they're going to pay some vendor to solve. Given RIM's reputation, if it has a viable option, it'll get a look.

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