Bye-Bye BlackBerry?

Once the only sanctioned smartphone in town, the BlackBerry could be on its way to the recycling bin.

iPhone touch-screens are commandeering BlackBerry thumbs across government, according to new studies. But replacing the only government-certified smartphone with consumer electronics is forcing federal chief information officers to rethink mobile security and contracting. 

The Government Business Council, Government Executive’s research arm, identified huge shifts in BlackBerry use among federal managers between August 2009 and September 2011. Most managers were “crackberry” addicts in August 2009—77 percent—and now less than half are Berry users. At the same time, iPhone use has nearly tripled, reaching 23 percent. The iPad also is stealing federal customers from BlackBerry, claiming 17 percent of the market, and smartphones powered by Google’s Android operating system are hovering at 25 percent. 

The shift from the BlackBerry is being driven by federal employees who prefer a wider array of sophisticated apps, communications consultants say. Age also is a factor, according to GBC’s research. Older managers like plain-vanilla voice cellphones and younger execs use smartphones. Managers between 41 and 50 years old opt for Apple’s iOS, which runs the iPhone and iPad, while the youngest managers, 40 and under, use Android-based smartphones. 

The CIO shop at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to satisfy those employees who favor iPhones and Android devices over BlackBerrys, made by Ottawa-based Research in Motion. When its RIM licenses expire this summer, the agency’s roughly 2,000 BlackBerry users will get new phones, NOAA officials say. 

Stefan Leeb, the NOAA program manager involved with the changeover, says his agency needs to be able to recruit talent that is more comfortable with the newer devices. “We don’t want to be stuck with BlackBerrys,” he says. “It’s not because we don’t like BlackBerrys. It’s because we want to have other capabilities.” NOAA wants to foster a platform-agnostic workforce that is not beholden to any specific brand or device. The first step, Leeb says, is assigning iPhones and iPads, because they are the easiest commercial devices to manage within the agency’s existing computing environment. Meanwhile, NOAA is testing Android products to make sure they comply with agency security requirements.

“We’re not buying additional BlackBerry devices,” Leeb says. “Our intention is to be off BlackBerrys by June 1.”

Price also played a part in NOAA’s decision to ban BlackBerrys, at least for now. “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,” he says.

RIM officials said in a statement that current customers would save money if they stick with the company’s services and upgrade their BlackBerrys. “By leveraging their existing investment, no capital expense is needed to use the BlackBerry security model proven over the last decade, which then seamlessly extends to all of the latest BlackBerry smartphones,” they wrote. 

The decline of the BlackBerry in government tracks with national trends. Data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project shows a 4 percent drop in Berry users between May 2011 and February 2012, and a 9 percent rise in iPhone users during that period. As of February, 6 percent of cellphone owners had Berrys, while 19 percent used iPhones and 20 percent owned Android devices.  

Some federal information technology personnel, however, moan about agencies allowing employees to work on personal phones, a practice called BYOD, or bring your own device. The concern is colleagues could inadvertently compromise agency networks with infected apps downloaded for fun and entertainment. 

“It’s difficult to prevent people from loading applications or jail-breaking their phones, and that complication is largely solved in the BlackBerry,” says Tom Hallewell, president of the Information Systems Security Association’s Washington chapter, whose members are mainly feds and contractors. “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.” 

But Hallewell admits the BlackBerry is still far from perfect, and other experts note its track record for reliability has deteriorated. Because BlackBerry data travels outside the United States through Canada, government information escapes the reach of U.S. legal protections. Some agencies don’t like having their data subject to potentially conflicting foreign privacy and e-discovery rules, he says. “Physically, the device is pretty secure, but the data path is maybe not so secure,” Hallewell says. 

During a three-day period in October 2011, RIM email service failed worldwide intermittently. “When the BlackBerry service went down, it provided momentum for the switch” to other smartphones, says Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. 

Officials said RIM “continuously upgrades our device portfolio, introducing significantly greater functionality and speed, allowing government workers to enhance their productivity while remaining secure.” And the BlackBerry remains the device of choice for federal managers between 51 and 60 years old, according to the Government Business Council’s research. “It’s not going to evaporate immediately,” Suss acknowledges. “In recent memory, the BlackBerry was the only acceptable form of mobile device from a security point of view, and that is changing.” 

By August, the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Defense Department’s IT support division, expects to release security guidelines that will cover the Android mobile platform and iOS. The agency also is compiling blanket requirements that will apply to any current or future phone in the consumer space. “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,” says Mark Orndorff, DISA chief information assurance executive. 

In addition, DISA is working with Apple to reconcile outstanding security concerns regarding iOS, such as incompatibility with a government encryption standard called Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2. Next-generation BlackBerrys already are compliant.  But, Suss says, “Apple phones are here to stay—it’s a change being driven by user demand.” 

The government’s shopping agency, the General Services Administration, just wants everyone to recycle the BlackBerrys they stop using. In February, GSA, a newcomer to the commercial smartphone fray, issued an advisory that prohibits agencies from dumping electronic devices, including BlackBerrys, in landfills and incinerators. Mandatory e-recycling is expectedto follow, GSA officials say. Agencies with functioning BlackBerrys left over can transfer them to other government offices, donate the phones to nonprofit organizations or auction them off through GSA for money back, according to GSA. 

Leeb says he has not determined what NOAA will do with its excess BlackBerrys, but, “we’re not going to throw them away. That’s just ridiculous.”