RIM Missed Opportunity For Straight Talk

BlackBerry maker made some snazzy announcements last week, but unless it can settle the widespread unease about its recent network outage, customers will move on.
Research In Motion missed a golden opportunity last week at its DevCon event to get the company back on the high road following its worldwide BlackBerry network outage earlier this month. Instead of reassuring developers and customers about the viability of its network as it disclosed details on its new BBX operating system and multiplatform mobile device management software, RIM merely recapped the prior week's apology. Customers want clear answers, not free apps.

RIM was once a pioneer, in the days when it made sense for companies to have a service provider between their mobile phones and email. The value proposition was that the RIM NOC was there for you as your 99.999% uptime buddy--your servers didn't need to be up 24/7. There was also a scale argument: Don't build a huge mail cluster; just let RIM do it for you. And the standards for email retrieval were hardly secure. So "BlackBerry as a service" was a no-brainer for most organizations.

But today's enterprise email systems, whether for desktop or mobile devices, must scale up and be available all the time. Whether an organization chooses to do email in-house or in the cloud, treating mobile email differently from standard PC email no longer makes sense. And unless RIM has something compelling to say about how it's going to rearchitect the way it provides email following its outage, few customers are drinking its high-availability Kool-Aid right now.

Microsoft's ActiveSync, licensed to multiple parties, including Google and Apple, is busting apart RIM's old model. This communications channel, which uses PKI-based SSL, is secure enough that it's getting traction in many companies, letting enterprise IT sanction and set up popular iPhones and Android devices for work email.

IT and the budget office, in turn, are delighted to get off the BlackBerry "recurring additional expense" train and have users connect instead to ActiveSync, which comes at no additional charge. Must-have security features, such as the ability to remotely wipe devices and force users to set a PIN, are available directly through the Exchange server's Outlook Mobile Access module.

BlackBerry Enterprise Server's tight security, of course, still offers companies some demonstrable value. The "app crap" of the Android market and associated malware, along with corporate unease with users treating iPhones like their own personal app stores, has led many IT organizations to adopt mobile device management (MDM) software, generally an ongoing expense just like RIM's licensing. They're swapping one type of ongoing expense for another.

The question then becomes: Does RIM offer a compelling value proposition compared with other MDM players?

Global CIO
Global CIOs: A Site Just For You
Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.

RIM's MDM software, called Balance, supports both the iPhone and Android platforms. It boasts many of the enhanced security features of BlackBerry Enterprise Server, but for non-BlackBerry devices. And (feather in RIM's cap here) it provides a sensible model for separating apps containing enterprise data from apps containing personal data. Will enterprise customers adopt this new value proposition?

There are two types of customers to consider: Those that use RIM devices exclusively or extensively, and those with many non-RIM devices.

RIM has a chance with the true believer shops. The question is whether RIM will adequately address the network architectural problems that disrupted its BlackBerry service for several days. So far--and it's been well over a week--it hasn't inspired much confidence.

It's critical that it does. The shops that have already gone with iPhones and/or Android devices for some significant portion of their mobile workforces aren't going to adopt RIM's MDM. RIM was late to the game with multiplatform MDM, and for the most part these shops have already adopted something else.

So hooray for BBX. Hooray for Balance. Big product announcements are fantastic. But as the big pharma sales exec I met last night told me: "RIM needs to get its head out of its collective tail and start giving some specific answers about what happened with the outage, and how specifically it won't happen again, or we're outta there." If RIM's large installed base runs away, no amount of new operating systems and MDM will save it.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

Editor's Choice
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data