BlackBerry Needs Apps to Retain Federal Market Share

Consumers have embraced the competition; agencies may not be far behind.

A compelling array of applications will be vital for Research in Motion’s forthcoming BlackBerry 10 if the company hopes to maintain some share of the federal marketplace it once dominated, a government vendor said Wednesday.

That won’t be an easy sell for developers, however, who don’t see RIM’s BlackBerry as “vibrant and new,” Agilex Chief Technology Officer Tim Hoechst told Nextgov.

BlackBerry controlled 77 percent of the federal market as recently as 2009 but dropped to less than half the market by late 2011, elbowed out by Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android platform.

Those percentages track with an overall turn away from BlackBerrys nationwide. The situation has been aggravated by agencies’ love affair with the iPad, which BlackBerry’s Playbook has failed to disrupt.

“In order to make what was essentially a messaging device competitive with the iPhone they’ve got to get into the app ecosystem,” Hoechst said. “The challenge is that on the app side, I’m afraid that train may have largely left the station.” RIM demonstrated some apps on its new device, which looks more like an iPhone with its internal keyboard than a traditional BlackBerry, during the recent BlackBerry World showcase in Orlando.

RIM also released the software to private app developers, though it’s not clear yet when the device itself will come out.

The remaining arrow in RIM’s quiver is the years-old infrastructure the government has built up around the BlackBerry, which agency IT offices are reluctant to abandon, Hoechst said.

“A lot of times the use of BlackBerrys in government isn’t the choice of the user it’s the choice of the enterprise,” he said. “That’s why people have the government-issued BlackBerry in their left pocket and a personal iPhone in their right pocket. Because that’s what the IT departments have the infrastructure to support.”

That could be especially helpful in agencies or divisions that stick with a single approved device rather than building platforms that support multiple devices, he said. Many agencies have embraced the concept of “device agnostic” systems and federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel has said “bring your own device” will likely be a part of the forthcoming federal mobility strategy. That move could be delayed at some agencies, though, in an attempt to save money. “If tomorrow BlackBerry had an alternative that was, gosh, just palatable,” Hoechst said, “the IT departments would say ‘holy mackerel. I can deploy this easily and I already have the infrastructure.’ And the security guys would say, ‘hey, the BlackBerry already works. We know it’s secure.’ So even if it’s not what the users are demanding, the IT departments could choose it based on cost to the enterprise. They could say, ‘well, here are the three apps we really need and we can write them for this platform.’”

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