BlackBerry's grip on U.S. government phones loosens

Research in Motion responded Thursday to a series of setbacks this week that suggest the BlackBerry's days as the exclusive supplier of smartphones for the U.S. government might be coming to an end.
The ubiquitous BlackBerry could be in danger of losing its dominance in an area it had long been Number 1 -- government contracts.

Research in Motion responded Thursday to a series of setbacks this week that suggest the BlackBerry's days as the exclusive supplier of smartphones for the U.S. government might be coming to an end.

Last week, the  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a division America's Department of Homeland Security, announced it would be moving away from solely using BlackBerry devices for the department's 17,676 employees.

Waterloo-based RIM had been the department's exclusive supplier of smartphones for eight years. But after an internal analysis, the department said it found devices based on Apple's iOS operating system would suit the department's needs going forward.

"ICE conducted an analysis and concluded that smartphone solutions running the Good Technology application offered the best support for our mission needs moving forward," ICE's deputy press secretary Gillian M. Christensen told CBC News. 

Good Technology is a U.S.-based firm that offers office-style applications for enterprise customers on iPhones and devices based on Google's Android operating system, but only if the customer's back-end IT system is made compatible with their programs.

The move was a minor blow to RIM, which has long had a stranglehold on government cellular contracts because of the company's world-renown security and encryption protocols.

Then on Wednesday, word broke that the Pentagon had made a similar move, although it stopped short of issuing a formal tender for non-BlackBerry devices.

The Defense Information Systems Agency has requested software that can monitor and enforce security requirements on devices that the agency doesn't currently use, such as iPhones and Android-based smartphones.

Multiple devices

The contract is for April, and if it comes to pass, the Pentagon's new wireless plans will still incorporate BlackBerry smartphones. "DISA is managing an enterprise e-mail capability that continues to support large numbers of RIM devices while moving forward with the department's planned mobile management capability that will support a variety of mobility devices," a Pentagon spokesperson was quoted by Reuters News Agency as saying.

According to Reuters, the contract will be for 162,500 cellphones at first, but could grow to as large as eight million over time. With a potential customer base that large, RIM was eager to note on Thursday that it was working very closely with the U.S. government to meet their needs.

RIM's is touting Mobile Fusion as a cross-platform system that can incorporate non-BlackBerry devices to work across a network as big as that. 

"As the benefits of enterprise mobility are extended to more and more employees within government agencies, we are pleased to be able to support a growing number of mobile devices across multiple platforms with BlackBerry Mobile Fusion," RIM's vice-president of enterprise solutions Paul Lucier said.

BlackBerry 10 launching soon

The feature is one of many set to be unveiled in the next generation of BlackBerry 10 devices, which are currently scheduled to be released in the first three months of 2013.

Currently, BlackBerry is one of the few cellular devices to have been granted FIPS approval by the U.S. government. Standing for Federal Information Processing Standard, FIPS is what ensures all U.S. government-owned technology devices meet the government's rigid security requirements.

Indeed, the ubiquitous BlackBerry became something of a political issue early in the term of current U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 because it was deemed to be the only wireless device deemed secure enough to handle sensitive communications from the most powerful man in the world.

If that dominance in government is in jeopardy, it could come as a blow for a company losing market share in the competitive smartphone space. Behind the legal and financial industries where it remains dominant, government contracts remain one of RIM's largest customer bases.