After BlackBerries, what’s next for government mobile users?

By Doug Miller

RIM has historically been the device of choice for secure mobile communication in the government market. The BlackBerry phone offered unique business-oriented capabilities but lacked sex appeal to draw consumers to its products. Yet for government agencies that needed to supply their workers with a robust, secure cell phone, the business features won out over giving users a device that was “magical.”

Now with the rise of BYOD (“bring you own device”) in government agencies, RIM is suddenly no longer an appealing option for consumers who are now asked to buy their own device and bring it to work. As attractive as BYOD is for budget planners, BYOD has the potential to be a nightmare for IT support staff that has to support and manage what seems like an infinite range of smartphones with different operating systems, security capabilities, enterprise features and quality. I believe, what is more likely to happen is government IT staff will provide users with a list of recommended devices and only support users of those devices for government communications needs once the device has been properly secured and configured. Some agencies, like the NSA, may want to stick with closely-managed, government-issued devices but will be looking for alternatives to the BlackBerry.

Does anyone have the ability to both address the security needs of government IT policies but also provide a range of products that will appeal to consumers? Until recently, I thought Samsung had a good shot at doing this. Now with the recent Apple-Samsung patent trial outcome, it is worth revisiting the options.

Samsung

So why is Samsung a legitimate choice as a replacement for RIM for government communication needs? Samsung announced in October 2011 a new program for its Android-based mobile devices called SAFE or Samsung Approved for Enterprise. This feature set was designed to layer on top of the Android operating system to provide more robust security and enterprise features. This, together with Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface, was designed to also address the fragmentation issues in the Android ecosystem by providing both a consistent experience and a consistent set of enterprise features – regardless of the version of Android running underneath. The list of enterprise capabilities is impressive. Samsung built the program around four enterprise pillars:

  1. Mobile device management
  2. Better Microsoft Exchange support, including fixing many of the issues in stock Android related to calendar functions
  3. On-device encryption
  4. Virtual private network support

As well, there are over 330 new IT policies that can be applied to these devices by IT managers.

Samsung began rolling out SAFE devices this year, including making it a standard feature set on products such as the Galaxy Note, the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Tab 7.7. Combine this with the ability to tie the device to your Google Apps government or corporate account and you have a pretty slick, secure communications device ready to satisfy most government IT demands and have the features and apps that would appeal to consumers.

So with this, Samsung appeared to be the first handset manufacturer that was serious about providing a range of mobile devices worthy of replacing the BlackBerry franchise in the government. While these SAFE devices have not yet been impacted by injunctions or a court-ordered removal from the market, the possibility that this could happen now is very real. For government IT managers looking for a product set to recommend to their BYOD users, there is probably some hesitation in putting some or all their eggs in the Samsung basket. Some may even be reconsidering sticking with RIM until the impact is known for Samsung and the rest of the Android ecosystem.

What about other options such as Apple and Microsoft?

Apple

While Apple has been hugely successful with consumers, there is more caution when it comes to deploying its devices in secure government communications scenarios. Based on Apple’s feature set and lack of high end enterprise features, it is questionable whether Apple even wants to take on these support-intensive markets. I suspect Apple will keep its focus on the consumer with a nod to basic business needs but leave the challenge of creating robust government-ready solutions to service providers who specialize in the unique needs of these customers. There is no question whether Apple devices will get used by government workers (they already are). The question is who will do the heavy lifting to make these devices fully ready for government use.

Microsoft

The other legitimate choice for replacing BlackBerry is Microsoft. Microsoft has a long history of selling solutions to the government, has been producing platforms for mobile devices for years, works with a diverse ecosystem of solution providers and has a very solid Windows Phone offering. Plus Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are about to be launched. So can Windows Phone take on RIM in the government market? Even though I am happy Windows Phone user, I don’t think the device is tuned out of the box for the needs of government users. While having a real Office and a superb Outlook experience on the phone are definite pluses, Microsoft has this obsession of thrusting social networking and Xbox into the experience. This, coupled with the requirement to tie the phone to a consumer-oriented Microsoft Live or Hotmail (or now Outlook.com) account makes it less appealing for enterprise and government customers. Why can’t I link the phone into my Office 365 corporate experience, including tying it to my Office 365 account, getting SharePoint support and “real” real-time communications support and dump the ties to the consumer features? Perhaps Microsoft or one of its partners will address this in the upcoming release. This seems like an obvious market for Microsoft to go after with its partners.

Waiting game

In the end, government IT decision makers may decide to sit tight for the next few months and see how all of this plays out.

  • Will RIM see a resurgence based on dampened enthusiasm for Android?
  • Will BYOD really work for government scenarios or will managers decide it is a security or management nightmare waiting to happen?
  • Will Samsung be able to bounce back and brush off concerns about its future viability with its current product strategy?
  • Will Apple see an opening and decide to make a serious run for the government market?
  • Will Microsoft get serious about building a mobile offering tuned for the enterprise and government markets?
  • Will the raft of new products being announced by all these vendors change the competitive landscape in the near future?

The best advice may be to wait and see what happens over the next two months.

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