BlackBerry Loses Its Grip On Federal Government

RIM's BlackBerry platform has maintained a strong following in government for years, but that is changing.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

October 24, 2012

4 Min Read

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The BlackBerry, carried by FBI agents, Congressional staffers, and even President Obama, this week suffered its latest and most serious setback as the de facto mobile device in federal government, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chose the iPhone as its new mobile platform. Barring some rapid innovation by RIM, the BlackBerry's best days in Washington will soon be over.

After eight years with BlackBerry, ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security, indicated in a solicitation on that it would no longer be using BlackBerry, joining a growing list of agencies that are increasing their use of Android and iOS devices and, in some cases, switching away from the BlackBerry entirely. In all, 17,676 ICE employees will now be receiving iPhones instead of BlackBerrys.

The Department of Defense might not be far behind. Procurement documents released Monday by the Pentagon for mobile device management software included BlackBerry management only as a nice-to-have. The change is also happening at government contractors. Booz Allen Hamilton will move 25,000 employees from BlackBerrys to iPhones and Android devices, the company said last week.

[ Government IT pros face a variety of challenges. Read State CIOs Face Balancing Act In 2013. ]

BlackBerry remained a stalwart in government circles in recent years even as its grip on the business and consumer smartphone market began to loosen. However, the Federal Air Marshall Service, the Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are switching, or have already done so, from BlackBerry to other mobile platforms. Other agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, the Air Force, and the Federal Aviation Administration, are widening their use of BlackBerry alternatives.

BlackBerry still has a big footprint in the government market. The company puts its government business at one million users in North America, with 400,000 device upgrades last year alone. According to RIM's most recent annual financial report, government represents one of BlackBerry's three largest user bases, along with the financial and legal industries. However, these numbers don't indicate how quickly things are changing, and it's clear that Apple and Google are hot on RIM's heels.

ICE chose to go with the iPhone because "RIM technology can no longer meet the mobile technology needs of the agency," it said in its procurement documents. "ICE has evolving mobile law enforcement business requirements that require the use of more capable and dynamic mobile technology to support its mission and personnel."

The agency attributed the change in strategy to increases in mobile capabilities--the availability of thousands of applications, for example---and end user expectations. Government employees want devices that let them do more at any time and from anyplace. The Blackberry, with its smaller ecosystem, has trouble keeping up with the rapid pace of innovation on other smartphones.

One factor that has worked in RIM's favor in business and government is BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which helps manage and secure devices in enterprise email systems. However, the emergence of mobile device management technologies from Zenprise, Good Technology, MobileIron, and others make it easier to bring other devices into the fold. "Driven by the move from well-managed and secured BlackBerrys to consumer-focused devices, MDM is the fastest-growing enterprise mobile software ever," Gartner wrote in a report earlier this year.

The enterprise feature gap has also shrunk as Apple and Android improve device security. For example, Apple hardened the kernel in iOS 6. And Google added full address space layout randomization, a powerful memory protection feature, to the latest version of Android.

RIM's VP of government solutions, Paul Lucier, said in a statement that he's "confident that BlackBerry is, and will continue to be, the best solution for government agencies." He didn't contend that the BlackBerry will continue its dominance in government. Given the way things are going, it won't.

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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