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BlackBerry tells feds: Get on the bus

Oliver Lang/AP

With its share price on the slide, executive shakeups, a projected first quarter loss, layoffs looming on the horizon, and reports of investors pushing for a breakup or sale, Research In Motion is looking to shore up loyalty among one of its core user groups – federal workers.

The company has been operating buses on Washington's commuter slug routes – established pickup spots where motorists can pick up passengers to qualify for the speedy high occupancy vehicle lanes. On these rolling guerrilla marketing events, BlackBerry’s touts let riders play with new model smartphones and ask them to urge their own information technology managers to upgrade. The campaign ends on Friday.

The Pentagon is a key dropoff point, along with spots near the government agencies along the Mall and a few points near the White House.

The Pentagon is BlackBerry’s top customer, according to a Reuters report published Wednesday, with 250,000 subscriptions. Between the U.S. and Canada, BlackBerry has one million government users. The federal government along with Congress and its staff are still loyal to the device, with usage rates that far outpace that of the general population.

A National Journal survey conducted in January found that 77 percent of Capitol Hill staffers use the device, but that number is down from 93 percent in 2009. Enthusiasm for the device is dwindling among federal executives as well.

Unfortunately for the Ontario-based firm, the U.S. government appears to be set to reduce its dependence on BlackBerry devices. The Digital Government Strategy, released last week by the White House, sets a timeline for developing security standards for a bring-your-own-device policy, under which government employees can access work networks with any device.

Scott Totzke, senior vice president for BlackBerry Security, is a bit of a skeptic when it comes to potential cost savings that is promised by BYOD. “When we let people buy their own devices, the ability to consolidate purchasing and use that bulk purchasing power to get more favorable rates, that kind of erodes,” he told National Journal.

At the same time, BlackBerry is adapting to this any-device-goes trend, with the rollout of Mobile Fusion, a device management platform that extends secure connections to Android and Apple iPhones. This security-as-a-service solution is a big piece of what BlackBerry could have to offer federal chief information officers, who are charged with safeguarding data traveling over networks that tie in to employee-owned phones.

Totzke is quick to claim BlackBerry device security is superior, because it makes its own phones and servers, adding that other devices, especially those that run licensed operating systems, are more likely to be pirated or knock-offs. “We can’t make security a race to the bottom for the sake of pursuing a bring-your-own-device policy,” he said.

One feature BlackBerry aficionados swear by is the BlackBerry Messenger or BBM, an instant message service that provides quick, secure text service. It's one of the few growth areas for BlackBerry, with 55 million users. There was a move to license the system for use on other devices, but it was shelved, according to a Wall Street Journal report, once new chief executive Thorsten Heins took over.

While R.I.M is promoting the upcoming release of its BlackBerry 10 operating system and a new touch-screen device that is modeled after its PlayBook tablet, the company faces an uphill climb as consumers show overwhelming preference for iPhones and Android devices.

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