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Game over for BlackBerry? Agencies’ plans snub federal icon

Oct. 28, 2012 - 03:31PM   |  
Research in Motion (RIM) CEO Thorsten Heins speaks during the BlackBerry Jam 2012 conference Sept. 25 in San Jose, Calif.
Research in Motion (RIM) CEO Thorsten Heins speaks during the BlackBerry Jam 2012 conference Sept. 25 in San Jose, Calif. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

BlackBerry’s strong security features have made it the most widely used smartphone in the federal government for years.

But that appears to be changing quickly:

• The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Credit Union Administration stopped supporting BlackBerry smartphones this year.

• The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement this month said it will swap BlackBerrys for iPhones because the BlackBerrys “can no longer meet the mobile technology needs of the agency.”

• And last week, the Defense Department dealt another blow to BlackBerry’s manufacturer, Ontario-based Research In Motion: It announced plans to buy a mobile device management system that supports Apple and Google products — iPhone and Android — but may not support BlackBerry.

Even President Obama, who started his presidency using a secure BlackBerry, has since famously switched to an iPad.

“The user expectation has changed,” said Ronnie Levine, chief information officer at NCUA. Employees at the agency are carrying iPhones with them all the time, and people are more comfortable doing work outside of normal hours, Levine said.

Before the 1,200-person agency rolled out nearly 1,000 iPhones this year, people were using smartphones on their own because they were easier to use and they could access more information, said Chad Tucker, division chief for the agency’s IT operations.

NCUA broke its ties with RIM this month, despite the company’s promised new line of BlackBerry smartphones and software products due to be unveiled early next year.

“It was too little too late,” Tucker said of RIM’s upcoming products launch.

RIM claims to have 1 million government customers in North America, including the federal government.

Neither RIM nor its chief competitors, Google and Apple, would disclose their federal market share.

“We are going through a very major transition and we knew it would be challenging, and we are overcoming those” challenges, said Paul Lucier, vice president for government solutions at RIM.

More than 400,000 government customers upgraded to a new BlackBerry device last fiscal year. “It’s great to see people upgrading those devices because oftentimes we have people comparing the latest devices in the market to a device that’s four [or] five years old,” he said.

The company released a mobile device management solution that will allow agencies to manage BlackBerry, Apple and Android devices.

Another feature, called BlackBerry Balance, will allow agencies to separate government data on employees’ personal smartphones.

When asked about the company’s financial stability, Lucier refuted claims that RIM was on the verge of collapse. RIM has no debt and it is adding revenue and new subscribers worldwide, he said.

The Defense Department, by far RIM’s largest federal customer, is expanding a mobile strategy that could topple the BlackBerry as its dominant mobile device.

Last week, the Defense Information Systems Agency issued a solicitation to industry detailing DoD’s need for software that can monitor, manage and enforce security requirements for Apple and Android devices.

The solution, known as a mobile device management or MDM solution, will not be required to support BlackBerry and Windows devices.

DoD expects its MDM solution will ultimately support 8 million devices, including all department-issued mobile devices and computers. At the outset, the software would manage at least 162,500 devices. An award is expected in April.

Whatever solution DoD selects could be expanded to manage mobile devices across the department.

The mobile device management solution will also include a mobile application store capability that allows system administrators to update and delete applications on mobile devices remotely. Mobile device users will be able to download and install approved software applications through a departmentwide Web portal.

Many are hopeful that DISA will approve guidance for securing Apple’s iOS 6, the newest operating system, this year or soon after.

Branch-level CIOs don’t want to roll out these new devices until security requirements are approved, said Eugene Liderman, director for Good Technology’s public sector unit. “Somebody has to sign off on risk,” Liderman said.

Civilian agencies also are purchasing mobile device management solutions to centrally manage devices, ensure software patches are current, block access to certain applications and wipe data on the phone remotely if it is lost or stolen.

The challenge for agencies is that Google and Apple phones, unlike RIM’s BlackBerry, were not built with federal security standards in mind. That has forced agencies to buy third-party software that ensures those phones meet security standards.

A shift in the corporate world to support multiple devices and even allow employees to use their own devices is affecting the federal market, said Debora Plunkett, head of NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate.

Contractor Booz Allen Hamilton plans to end its ties with RIM in the coming months. That means employees who have a company-issued or personal BlackBerry will have to make the switch to either an Apple or Android device if they want to continue receiving company emails via their mobile device, said spokesman James Fisher. Most of the company’s 25,000 employees use their personal BlackBerry, Android or Apple devices, he said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has relied on BlackBerrys for more than eight years, is switching to iPhones. It will spend $2.1 million to buy 17,676 iPhones for its law enforcement offices and other personnel.

In its solicitation posted Oct. 17, ICE said it requires more capable and dynamic mobile technology to support its mission and personnel.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects it will save about $200,000 by shifting from BlackBerry to Apple devices. Savings will include the cost of running a separate BlackBerry server to manage the smartphones and provide secure email.

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