Federal managers quickly ditching BlackBerry for iOS, Android devices

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According to recent research there has been a huge shift in what handsets U.S. federal managers use on the job, with many moving away from RIM's BlackBerry platform for more capable iOS and Android solutions.

The research arm of Government Executive, the Government Business Council, found that the share of managers using BlackBerry devices dropped from 77 percent in August 2009 to less than 50 percent in September 2011, reports government blog Nextgov.

Many former Research in Motion stalwarts are abandoning the BlackBerry ship and moving to handsets popular in the consumer market. The share of managers using iPhones, for example, has nearly tripled since 2009 and now stands at 23 percent while Google's Android platform accounts for 25 percent. Apple's iPad is also seeing an increase in usage, now owning 17 percent of the government market.

Two main drivers, availability of apps and age, are behind the move away from BlackBerry, the report concludes. GBC's research saw older government executives sticking with easy-to-use feature phones, but younger managers have started the trend toward non-BlackBerry smartphones. Managers 41 to 50 years old mainly use iOS devices while the younger 40-and-under demographic gravitates toward Android. BlackBerry holds the lion's share of 51- to 60-year-olds.

One of the first government agencies to officially adopt Apple's devices was the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which announced in February that it would be replacing around 2,000 BlackBerry smartphones with iOS hardware. NOAA is said to be cutting off BlackBerry support on May 12, at which time the units will be replaced by the iPhone 4 and iPad 2.

“We’re not buying additional BlackBerry devices,” said Stefan Leeb, NOAA's program manager tasked with the switchover. “Our intention is to be off BlackBerrys by June 1.”

The agency is attempting to be platform-agnostic and is currently testing Android devices to make sure they meet compatibility and security requirements. In the short-term, however, NOAA is opting for Apple solutions because the iOS platform is the easiest to get working with its existing operating environment.

“We don’t want to be stuck with BlackBerrys,” Leeb said. “It’s not because we don’t like BlackBerrys. It’s because we want to have other capabilities.” Price was also a factor, as Leeb said, "we need to reduce our operating costs and the cost to license, operate and manage BlackBerry devices is very high compared to alternatives that support multiple mobile platforms,”

A second government entity, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is also planning to move away from BlackBerry and will be replacing 3,800 smartphones with handsets running alternate platforms, 60 percent of which will be iOS-powered.

Apple's iPhone in business webpage advertises the handset's workplace capabilities. | Source: Apple

With smartphone popularity on the rise, some government institutions have allowed its employees to use personal devices at work in what is called a bring your own device, or BYOD, policy. This has raised security concerns as non-managed handsets can easily compromise networks with malware, problems that the BlackBerry platform handles well.

“It’s difficult to prevent people from loading applications or jail-breaking their phones, and that complication is largely solved in the BlackBerry,” said Tom Hallewell, president of the Information Systems Security Association’s Washington chapter. “Everyone is clear that you can’t load apps on your government laptop...you can’t smoke cigarettes at work, and you have to take a drug test and you can’t use a Droid.”

RIM's products are not perfect, however, and experts have noted a recent decline in reliability as well as issues with the platform's data path. Because the Canadian company has located the BlackBerry control servers in its home country, all data must travel across borders where privacy laws may not be congruent with U.S. statutes.

“Physically, the device is pretty secure, but the data path is maybe not so secure,” Hallewell said.

Also relevant to data control is the 2011 three day outage RIM suffered in the EMEIA (Eurpoe, Middle East, India and Africa) region, which was followed by another disruption in the same area less than one month later. The problem was later traced back to a faulty UK server.

RIM is on the verge of rolling out a series of products based on its new BlackBerry 10 mobile OS, though some see the effort as too little, too late.

RIM CEO Thorsen Heins unveils the a smartphone prototype powered by the new BlackBerry 10 OS. | Source: Reuters

Further cementing the government's BlackBerry phase-out, the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Department of Defense's IT arm, is expected to release a document in August that will cover Android and iOS security guidelines.

“Our intent with this document is to establish a better partnership with industry so that any vendor interested in doing business with DoD can provide a release that is designed to our security goals at the same time the product is released to the commercial marketplace,” said Mark Orndorff, DISA chief information assurance executive.

Apple's iOS has a few hurdles to jump through, like gaining Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 compatibility, with which next-generation BlackBerrys are already compliant. The consensus remains, however, that the iPhone, iPad and Android will take over government as employees continue to exhibit demand in line with the consumer market.