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BlackBerry strategizes for more federal clients

Jan. 10, 2013 - 01:52PM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments
Paul Lucier, Vice President of Government Solutions at Research In Motion
Paul Lucier, Vice President of Government Solutions at Research In Motion (Mike Morones / Staff)

When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave employees a choice last year to use their own personal mobile devices or their government-issued BlackBerrys, most clung to their BlackBerrys.

The chief reason: People feel their work and personal lives should be separate, Kimberly Hancher, EEOC’s chief information officer, said in an interview. Other reasons include not having a smartphone other than their government BlackBerry, and concerns that doing work on their personal phones would cause their monthly bills to skyrocket, according to an internal survey of EEOC employees.

Still, more than 100 employees are using their personal BlackBerry, Android or Apple smartphones and tablets for work.

“We have a mature workforce, and the majority have only used a BlackBerry,” Hancher said. “That’s the only smartphone they ever had and needed to have, and they believe the government should furnish them with what they need to do their jobs.”

BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion is hoping the Jan. 30 launch of its new BlackBerry 10 device and management features will reignite its loyal federal fan base and win over some agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and others that have either stopped using BlackBerry devices or are considering doing so.

A major hurdle, however, will be working with federal information and security officers to strike a balance between security and utility for federal employees who want to use the camera, browse the Internet and access apps that have been available on Blackberrys but are often disabled for security reasons. RIM has built into its phones controls that let information technology departments turn off these features, which, in some cases, diminishes the user experience.

“BlackBerry became the device that fun forgot,” Scott Totzke, senior vice president of BlackBerry security, said in an interview. One of the things that drives federal workers to use Apple, Android or Windows devices is that their work experience is not the true BlackBerry experience.

RIM has been working with agencies such as the Defense Information Systems Agency to recommend security configurations for the BlackBerry that provide high levels of security while allowing users to benefit from BlackBerry’s features.

As part of RIM’s new mobile product line, BlackBerry users will be able to separate their government use of the devices from their personal use. There are two separate domains on the device, one for work and business applications and the other for social media, gaming and other personal use. Data on these separate domains cannot be shared or co-mingled, and all government data will remain encrypted.

Totzke said the company has been focused on doing better at getting the message out about all of the phone’s capabilities. Last summer, RIM hired a chief marketing officer.

However, some feds, including BlackBerry users at EEOC, are stuck using 5-year-old devices. The complaint from Hancher and other CIOs is the lack of a governmentwide contract for device and data plans. EEOC is using the General Services Administration’s Networx contract for smartphones, but Hancher said she is looking for a more flexible contract that allows her to get newer devices.

“That’s one of my priorities,” she said. “I understand that I will not be eliminating government-provided devices.”

GSA, under its wireless strategic sourcing initiative, was supposed to consolidate disparate wireless services and device contracts across government. An award was set for last fiscal year but was delayed by a protest. GSA spokeswoman Jackeline Stewart-Johnson declined to discuss the status of the contract.

Unlike EEOC, the National Archives and Records Administration is exclusively using BlackBerry devices, said CIO Michael Walsh. NARA is, however, exploring the use of other devices, including Apple’s iPad and eventually Android and newer BlackBerry devices, Walsh said.

Walsh said he hasn’t decided whether NARA will upgrade to the new BlackBerry 10 platform and devices after the launch this month, but he would like to pilot the new devices.

NARA has a strong base of BlackBerry users accustomed to that device and the capability, he said. Some people aren’t looking forward to using an Apple or Android smartphone. “But there are others that are dying to get off the BlackBerry.”

Walsh said he would like to offer employees a variety of government devices, including Apple, Android and BlackBerry.

A number of BlackBerry’s corporate and government users are testing the new devices, including ICE, which announced last year that it was ditching Blackberry for iPhones.

Paul Lucier, RIM’s vice president of government solutions, said the biggest challenge in the near term is upgrading customers to the new devices and software efficiently and quickly. Agencies can expect a faster processor and more functionality in the device, all while having a secure network. And the goal is to have thousands of applications available when the new devices are launched.

To address the move by more federal agencies to adopt devices other than BlackBerry, RIM has enhanced its back-end security feature, which allows agencies to manage and secure BlackBerrys and other devices.

“Security can’t be the people saying no,” Totzke said. “We have to be the people who are enabling the business.”

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