During the decline of Research In Motions base of loyal followers, the BlackBerry maker could always count on one bastion of users that would never surrender to the iPhone/Android duopoly: the United States government.
Ever an organization of extremely security conscious agencies, the U.S. federal government has long preferred BlackBerries over any other choice. The combination of security and communications in conjunction with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server gave RIM unique capabilities to serve the federal government in a way that no other mobile device maker could.
That base of support for BlackBerry in government finally started to erode in the past several years as RIM was unable to keep up with the quick iteration of new devices and touchscreen capabilities coming from Apple and Android. While many government agencies still mandated BlackBerries for their employees, more and more agencies have started to give their employees a choice, most often the iPhone. Progressive agencies like NASA moved towards both the iPhone and Android - and there have been overtures from the Department of Defense (by far the largest federal agency) and prominent contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton.
In short, BlackBerry use among federal agencies has been declining for much the same reasons that it has among top enterprises and the consumer sector: newer, better options along with increased security and mobile management options for non-BlackBerry platforms.
BlackBerry 10 On ICE
On Thursday, however, RIM may have notched a small victory in its quest to keep BlackBerries as the preferred smartphone of federal agencies. The Immigrations and Custom Enforcement agency (ICE) has announced that it will begin a pilot program to test RIM’s new BlackBerry 10 (BB 10) mobile operating system along with the BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 (BES 10) starting in January 2013.
ICE will be among the first government agencies to test BlackBerry 10, but the timing of the announcement is a little odd. Just two months ago ICE announced that it would let its employees use iPhones instead of BlackBerries. In all, about 17,000 ICE employees were being switched away from aging BlackBerries to Apple devices.
“Our priority is to ensure that ICE and all government agencies understand the full capabilities of the new BlackBerry 10 platform and how it can help them meet their mobility needs today and in the future. We are confident that they will be impressed by what they see and how BlackBerry 10 can help them develop new opportunities, improve service delivery and fully leverage the potential of mobile communications. We look forward to continuing our long-standing relationship with ICE and other global government organizations,” said Scott Totzke, senior vice president, BlackBerry Security, at RIM in an emailed statement to ReadWrite.
BB 10 I FIPS Certified
One big chip that RIM has in its pocket for BB 10 is that the operating system already has FIPS 140-2 (Federal Information Processing Standards) certification well ahead of its January 30th launch. RIM announced the FIPS certification in a surprise announcement in November. Normally, FIPS certification comes for an operating system or a device four to six months after the device is released as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) takes time to work through its queue of devices seeking approval to be used in the federal government. The fact that RIM already has FIPS 140-2 certification suggests that the company has had a close-to-consumer ready version of BlackBerry 10 working since at least the middle of 2012.
The pilot program by ICE and other government agencies could well end up being very important for the future of RIM and the success of BlackBerry 10. Many large enterprises and top government contractors look towards what the federal government is doing to secure its mobile devices when making decisions on what devices they will roll out to their employees. While there are several enterprise-grade security certifications, FIPS is seen as a standard-bearer in mobile security.
RIM fully understands that it needs to take a proactive attitute to maintain its leadership position in placing BlackBerries in government employees’ hands - if only for the potential trickle-down effect from governement agency to contractor to enterprise to consumer. The ICE pilot program is a good start.
Top photo courtesy Shutterstock.