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Has RIM's BlackBerry had its day in the enterprise?

Has RIM's BlackBerry had its day in the enterprise?

Not everyone is a winner as more CIOs start to loosen the ties that have long bound their organisations to RIM’s iconic BlackBerry

CSC chief information officer, Ben Patey

CSC chief information officer, Ben Patey

They were once ubiquitous in the workplace, as much a symbol of executive status as the gold standard in enterprise mobile communications. Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry devices held all the corporate aces and with unrivalled high-end security features, their appeal to and grip on the enterprise sector seemed impregnable.

Then came Apple’s iPhone and the pendulum began to swing, albeit slowly. Its revolutionary design struck a chord with everyday consumers enamoured by the screen real estate and a multitude of downloadable applications. The BlackBerry range, despite offering what was arguably the most complete Web browsing experience on a portable device, began to look a bit old hat with their small screens and tacked on keyboards.

RIM’s market share was surpassed by Android and iOS earlier this year and it is no secret that handset sales have nosedived. In the first quarter of 2011 RIM controlled 14 per cent of the total smartphone market, down from 19.1 per cent in the same quarter in 2010. On the consumer front it is trying to fight back against competitors such as the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S2 with the launch of two new Bold devices and three full touchscreen Torch models, but its dominance of the enterprise market appears permanently fractured.

The personal tech attack

In its most recent Risk/Reward Barometer, ISACA asked business and IT professionals which mobile devices they thought represented the greatest threat to their enterprise. In the Oceania region, just over half (52 per cent) said “any employee-owned mobile device”. But is the glass half full or half empty for RIM? Not that long ago an overwhelming majority of respondents would likely have been horrified at the prospect of an influx of personal tech products from Apple, Google and others. Seems they’re slowly getting used to the idea. Even so, RIM is far from down and out in the enterprise space.

Read more mobility in CIO Australia’s Mobile/Wireless/Convergence category.

ICT analyst Ovum recently completed a survey of Australian and New Zealand enterprises with more than 1000 employees. It found that almost 35 per cent continue to be exclusively BlackBerry shops.

“But it is a downward trend and the figure will certainly be lower in three years,” says Ovum senior analyst, Claudio Castelli. “RIM is losing out to the iPhone and although Android is starting from a very small base of about 2-3 per cent among large enterprises, respondents said they expect this to grow to over 10 per cent in two years.”

Quite simply, fewer IT administrators see the need to force everybody in their company to use BlackBerries. The emergence of third party services like Zenprise and Good Technology, which provide security functions similar to RIM, has been a key enabler for the so-called ’consumerisation’ of mobile enterprise communications. This, combined with a less than warm reaction to RIM’s PlayBook tablet in both the consumer and enterprise sectors, has opened the door further to products such as Apple’s iPad. Although never really designed with the enterprise market in mind, the proliferation of iPads in business seems irrepressible. For the most part, RIM’s PlayBook remains conspicuously absent.

Changing attitudes in enterprise

The erosion of security as a key differentiator between BlackBerry and its rivals is apparent at global IT, business process and outsourcing firm, CSC. Long a BlackBerry stalwart, CSC is a major provider of security services to government and the private sector. As such, it is imperative the company is and is seen to be at the top of its game in terms of its own internal security. Over the last couple of months it has been enabling a system based on ‘Good for Enterprise’ that will allow employees to use their own mobile devices for work purposes.

“We just needed the environment to mature to a point where we were comfortable there were ways and means of ticking all the security boxes,” says CSC chief information officer (CIO), Ben Patey, who is also a member of the CIO Executive Council. “Being a global organisation, I sync with my global CIO to ensure we leverage and use an agreed method to properly manage and secure the enterprise and the data that resides in it with the end points that connect to it, whether they be laptops, desktops, smartphones or tablet-type devices. We have gone through that process and are now in a position to stand up a service that will allow our employees to use their own devices to access things like corporate mail and the messaging platform.”

However, the decision to switch to a ‘BYO’ policy was not driven any intrinsic deficiencies of the BlackBerry platform.

“The BlackBerry was a very good device for delivering messaging, e-mail, calendar, online chat and phone functions,” Patey says. “But we needed to look at providing a richer experience for end users, and this wasn’t just driven by Gen-Y. I think all generations want technology that can give them a consistent and seamless experience – not just in their private life, but working life as well.”

As the war for talent heats up in wake of the GFC, attracting and retaining top staff is again top-of-mind issue for employers. Indeed, at a recent Gartner Summit in Sydney the example was cited of a company that offered potential employees well above average remuneration, a modern workplace environment and flexible hours, but still couldn’t fill available positions. When it surveyed applicants as to why they declined an employment offer, they blamed its out-dated IT infrastructure and lock-down policy on mobile communications.

“Things like social networking are also bleeding into and being seriously adopted by enterprise,” Patey adds. “To be truly worthwhile, social networking requires a bigger screen and BlackBerry hasn’t kept up in that space. Nor does it have the security advantages it once had. Encryption, strong password protection, remote device management and policy application, as well as being able to send a ‘kill pill’ (to wipe data in the event of theft) can now be achieved through third party applications.”

Is the future open-slather?

So are we headed for a free-for-all future where corporate services are standardised on a single platform and delivered to a multitude of end points determined only by consumer trends of the day?

“Obviously when running a BYO program you can’t lock down particular devices,” Patey says. “The exception is a hybrid program where I might want to provide an enriched corporate liable plan. For example, if I wanted to allow the executive team who currently have BlackBerries provided by the company, to migrate to a different device, I’d lock the choice down to certain models – be it an iPhone with a certain amount of memory, or whatever. As the company would be paying for the asset, there would need to be a support plan to ensure we had the ability to fix things when they break. With a BYO deal, that’s completely up to the individual.”

Such a hybrid scenario is not unlikely, especially in Australia. According to Ovum’s study, an open-slather BYO policy is more prevalent in Asia than anywhere else. In Australia, however, more than 85 per cent of companies still provide mobile devices to employees that have mobility as a business need, compared to just 70 per cent in the US and western Europe. This suggests a continuing vested interest in the types of products local firms provide and support.

Whatever turns out to be the case, there is no question many CIOs are ploughing a lot more effort into developing network access control systems and virtual desktop-like solutions to not only enable a greater range of mobile communications in enterprise, but to maintain data security and ownership for the enterprise.

“The number of tools they have to control and manage the growing diversity of devices is rapidly becoming more sophisticated,” Ovum’s Castelli says. “However, risk lies not so much in diversity, but in how risk management is applied. Security needs to be approached holistically, not just by looking at individual devices. The end user is the most critical part of the security equation. User behaviour and a company policy about how technology is deployed are vital. If you don’t trust people and don’t select them properly, it doesn’t matter how tight the security is on the devices they use.”

Certainly the breakneck adoption of personal tech in enterprise and government has not been lost on RIM. It recently rolled out a new system to allow iOS and Android devices to connect to its secure e-mail system – an initiative that may well shore up its standing in enterprise as a leading mobile operating system provider.

The unknown, of course, is whether by enabling more enterprise users to use iOS and Android devices, BlackBerry kicks an own-goal with its declining handset sales.

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Tags Ben PateyBlackberryITcscsecurityiPhoneBYOconsumeristation

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