CIOs Sound Off: What Happened to Your BlackBerry?

Once the only game in town, BlackBerry appears to be headed out of the market entirely. Five government CIOs share which mobile devices have their attention today.

by / October 28, 2013

BlackBerry published an open letter to its customers and partners in 30 newspapers around the globe earlier this month, proclaiming their stability. “You’ve no doubt seen the headlines about BlackBerry,” the advertisement reads. “You’re probably wondering what they mean for you as one of the tens of millions of users who count on BlackBerry every single day. We have one important message for you: You can continue to count on BlackBerry.”

The letter then went on to detail the phone’s social networking capabilities, security, and enterprise mobility management. The ad got at least one thing right – BlackBerry does still have tens of millions of users, but with Samsung and Apple dominating the consumer mobile market, it’s not a given that BlackBerry will be around forever.

Many users in online forums like Reddit have already written the company off. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the news of BlackBerry’s open letter only reached a score of about 125 on Reddit, while popular stories regularly reach scores of 1,500 or 2,500. Not only does BlackBerry appear to be flailing in deep water, but no one on the beach seems to care that much – they’re too busy tweeting on their iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4s.

What Happened?

BlackBerry made a run at the consumer market in early 2013, tying Alicia Keys into their marketing campaign, but the campaign never really got off the ground, IT analyst Rob Enderle said. “The consumer market just has too much money pointed at it and they couldn’t fund to the level of the competitors,” he said.

They didn’t really fail, he said, so much as they got shut out before they could even take a fair shot at the market. “You’ve got Apple, who typically outspends everybody else, and you had Samsung outspending Apple by a factor of three, and then Microsoft was stepping up to the table with not quite as much as Samsung but more than Apple, and that’s a very rich market to try to drive back through. They were simply under-resourced and overmatched.”

Now, Enderle said, BlackBerry is stepping back into their roots, which is business, and they’re far from dead. In fact, he said, BlackBerry is much better off than most other mobile hardware manufacturers right now, aside from Apple and Samsung. HTC is probably not going to survive, he said, and Sony doesn’t seem to be doing very well in the mobile market either. But BlackBerry has an advantage in business, Enderle said.

“BYOD isn’t universal yet,” he said. “It’s a massive trend, but it takes years for a trend like that to make it to the market and there will be entire industry segments that never adopt it because they have security requirements or people in that region just can’t afford phones, which is why BlackBerry is much stronger in South America, because companies buy phones for people in South America.” If BlackBerry can focus on the market segments where they’re still strong, they will survive, Enderle said.

Bring-your-own-device may not be universal yet, but BlackBerry is not the phone of choice for most in government. Government Technology asked five government CIOs what happened to their BlackBerrys, what phone they use today, and why.

Louis Carr, CIO of Clark County, Nev.

For its simplicity and ease-of-use, Carr said he has two iPhones – one for business and one for personal use. He has continued using Apple devices because he has grown accustomed to them, he said. It doesn’t necessarily do anything a Samsung or BlackBerry phone can’t do, but he said he likes the easy integration with iTunes and other apps.

Clark County still uses BlackBerrys, he said, but the county has begun transitioning to other mobile devices through the use of mobile device management software, so the security advantage offered by BlackBerry is beginning to fade. The county is now piloting the use of iPads and iPhones for business apps, VPN apps, and accessing network resources, he said.

When the county considers which devices to use, Carr said, they look at everything, including the new Windows 8 phones. “I’d look at the consumer market to some degree, because I want to select hardware that I think has longevity,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Windows 8 just hasn’t quite caught on, so as we talk about apps and things of that nature, that becomes a challenge. It’s the apps that drive the hardware.” The first thing the county does, Carr said, is identify what functionality they want, and then find which software platforms meet those needs – then they look for a device that can run the software they need.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, Calif.

In its day, BlackBerry was known for its fervent followers. For years, BlackBerry made devices that were unmatched in the marketplace, offering functionality and hardware not found elsewhere. Reichental owned six BlackBerry devices over a 10-year period, and he was a big fan of the company, he said. It wasn’t until joining Palo Alto in December 2011 that Reichental switched to an iPhone. He now uses an iPhone 5, with plans to soon upgrade to an iPhone 5s.

“There is no comparison between the BlackBerry I had and the iPhone experience,” he said, placing the iPhone ahead of every other smartphone on the market. “Like worlds apart.”

It was soon after the switch that he recognized the immense value of the Mac App Store, he said. On BlackBerry, some of the apps were very good, while others were not, but having access to such a large pool of developers who can make any app imaginable is one of Apple devices’ biggest draws, he said, in addition to better hardware performance and overall user experience than that found in Android-based devices.

The difference between Apple and Samsung devices is marginal today, Reichental said, and though it would be easy to switch to an Android device tomorrow, he won’t because he’s familiar with Apple and doesn’t want to bother learning a new interface for what would essentially be the same functionality.

And BlackBerry isn’t even a consideration at this point, he said. This may have been BlackBerry’s biggest problem when it made its foray into the consumer market. Reichental, a self-professed BlackBerry fan and previous owner of six BlackBerry devices, isn’t the least bit interested in going back to its smartphone. So, what would it take for him to give up his iPhone for something new?

“It would have to be the introduction of a significant new feature that could in some way impact my work or my personal life,” he said. “I don’t know what that is right now, but it would have to be something that is not available on the iPhone for a long period of time and I would feel like that would be useful in my life and I should change. I think short of pulling off a miracle, BlackBerry is over.”

Reichental suggested that if BlackBerry wants to continue competing in the future, it should give up its operating system, adopt Android, and become a hardware maker.

Lea Deesing, Chief Innovation Officer of Riverside, Calif.

Responding from an iPad, Deesing said she uses an iPhone 4s, with plans to soon upgrade to an iPhone 5s. The old phone will go to her husband, she added.

“I need my phone to work reliably and consistently,” she said. “I have found, for the most part, that Apple products do this. I also appreciate how Apple is very cautious about what applications they allow in their app store. While this sometimes frustrates my developers working to deploy a new city application to the app store, it's a protection to us all in the long term. The last thing I need is a rogue app. I also like the beautiful interfaces Apple products offer. The interface is clean and elegant.”

Jack Belcher, CIO of Arlington, Va.

BlackBerry had the best keyboard going, Belcher said, and he still doesn’t like Apple’s touchscreen keyboards, but that wasn’t enough to keep him from adopting an iPhone. It was the iPhone’s interface and apps that attracted him, he said, and he regularly uses basic functionality like scheduling, mail and note taking. Using an iPhone is a comfortable experience, he said.

The city of Arlington just signed an enterprise agreement with Microsoft, he explained, and Microsoft is really pushing the cloud integration capabilities with Windows 8 phones. At this point, Belcher has adopted a wait-and-see approach.

Bill Greeves, CIO of Wake County, N.C.

Still using a first-generation iPad and an iPhone 4s, Greeves said he is not a big gadget guy, but if he’s going to use a device, it needs to be great. “I used to use a BlackBerry, and once the iPhone came out, I found it to be much more usable for my personal needs, and it was definitely a mixture of business and personal use in terms of availability of apps and features.”

The BlackBerry is now out of the picture for Greeves. “If you call the iPhone a smartphone, I would not call the BlackBerry a smartphone,” he said of the BlackBerry Z10. “It was a good try. It was definitely an improvement. I don’t know -- I can’t say I gave it a full, fair-shake. By that time I was fully invested in my iPhone. I just found it to be somewhat clunky, very much a business tool instead of a personal productivity tool. And that’s what I look at my iPhone as.”

Apple has adopted a winning image, he said, which is that of the artisan, while BlackBerry is stuck with a corporate image and that of a device that has limited functionality, and that has plagued it. It’s not enough to almost catch up in the marketplace, he said – BlackBerry needed to provide a compelling reason for people to switch off their winning phones for something different, and BlackBerry simply didn’t do that.

The End?

For those keeping score – all five CIOs interviewed for this article said they use and love their iPhones. This wasn’t planned, and it’s unclear whether this is a trend among government CIOs, or just a coincidence. But the results were only surprising because while the absence of BlackBerry was expected, an Android-based phone wasn’t mentioned. Some CIOs mentioned the new Windows 8 phones, some mentioned Android as an alternative to Apple, and none seemed to consider BlackBerry a serious consideration for a new technology purchase.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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