Another big customer gives up Blackberry

The National Transportation Safety Board is following the lead of other agencies in replacing Blackberries with iPhones. It's original advantage -- security -- isn't as valued as smartphones' features.

When President Obama began his first term, he famously clung to his Blackberry. FBI agents and military higher-ups have been glued to theirs, too.

"The reason they've done so well in the government agencies has been security," says Eric Jackson at Iron Fire Capital in Toronto. The Canadian maker of the Blackberry -- Research in Motion, or RIM -- has counted on government contracts as other smartphones overtake it in the corporate market.

Blackberry phones are secure, in part, because they don't have tons of bells and whistles, or third-party apps. But you know that awful saying "good enough for government work"? Well, now some say Blackberry's not even suited for that.

"Even in the government," Jackson says, "people today want certain types of functionality that they haven't been able to get from the Blackberry."

Government has stuck with Blackberry this long mostly out of habit. "It tends to hold onto technologies for longer, and to be slower to adopt new ones," says Roger Kay at Endpoint Technologies.

So if agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board don't want to wait for the new Blackberry, due out this January, that is a really bad sign.

Plus, Kay says Apple and Google have stormed Capitol Hill without even really trying.

"The employees bring in their own devices and say, 'Hey, I want to use this.' The BYOD movement, Bring Your Own Device," he says.

The iPad hurts Blackberry's chances, too. Government agencies already using Apple's tablet may switch to iPhones for compatibility.

Rumors about the Blackberry company, RIM, don't help. "Hard for a government agency to make a decision and say, "we're definitely going to choose RIM," when some people are suggesting that it might not even be around," says Ryan Kim, en editor at GigaOm.

But the company still claims 80 million users worldwide. In some countries, like Nigeria and South Africa, a Blackberry remains a high-power status symbol, though experts I talked to were hard-pressed to say why. Like many devices or platforms before it, Blackberry will likely hang on in far-flung corners of the world, even as it disappears in the U.S.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.
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The fact that Blackberry has been decimated in the US (and many other) markets is not new - many government organizations around the world (including parts of the US Government) have already opted for other mobile platforms or BYOD: even RIM itself recognizes this, and supports iOS and Android devices through its management tools (e.g. "Blackberry Fusion" and BB10's upcoming "Blackberry Balance").

Blackberry today does not meet the needs or wants of consumers. That said, what is not covered in this segment is the fact that the new Blackberry operating system has received FIPS 140 approval ahead of launch (a key US government certification - http://goo.gl/pG4e8); the 80 million userbase noted is a - continued increase - from the quarter before; and importantly the developer community, mobile providers, and even in some cases - financial community -, are stating BB10 holds strong promise.

The statement that Blackberry is secure "in part" to the fact it does not have lots of bells and whistles or apps is akin to stating that "Warren Buffet is a rich man because he has resisted frivolous purchases". While not a purely false statement, it absolutely neglects the substantive parts of his investment strategy that have produced the results that it has. In the same way, Blackberry security (or software security more generally) is based on other elements, such as system management, private networks, development practices, encryption, and so on.

The survival and growth of several mobile platforms (Windows Phone included) provides consumers and businesses with important options and improved technology. In the same way nobody enjoyed Windows as the only viable option for a desktop OS for a long time, a smartphone platform duopoly will have an equally limiting (and frustrating) effect on all. Strong IT security, particularly in business and the government, is increasingly important. Lets hope these elements factor at least as importantly as "apps" in the shaping of the mobile market.

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