While Google Android and Apple iPhone are generating all the buzz in smartphones, BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion is still making all the right moves to win over companies and IT departments in the enterprise.
Android devices and iPhones are hot with consumers, and we're seeing more and more workers bringing these smartphones into the enterprise and connecting them to business systems, especially email and Web apps.
However, when it comes to smartphones that do deeper integration with business processes and the devices that companies deploy to their workers, BlackBerry remains the runaway leader. In fact, BlackBerry is actually growing stronger in the enterprise because its former archrival, Windows Mobile, has been floundering for the last couple years and Microsoft has recently decided to focus most of its attention on the consumer market with Windows Phone 7.
Based on my experience using and writing about BlackBerry and what I've seen and heard from developers and CIOs at the Wireless Enterprise Symposium 2010 in Orlando this week, here is why BlackBerry still dominates the enterprise:
1. Open development platform
BlackBerry offers an accessible platform for developers, especially enterprise developers. RIM has a large library of BlackBerry APIs that it makes available and provides deep integration into the OS. The platform itself is based on Java, which has an enterprise bent, mostly because of scalability and security.
RIM also allows companies to deploy BackBerry apps themselves by simply publishing the apps on a private or public Web page, and the apps can be deployed over-the-air (OTA). That's obviously a big benefit over the iPhone, where apps have to be deployed through iTunes or the Apple App Store.
2. Security and compliance
Building the hardware, the operating system, and the backend software (BES) allows BlackBerry security to remain air-tight. BlackBerry also began as an enterprise company, serving banks and governments in many cases, and those enterprises and their IT departments demand solid security before they'll even consider a deployment.
As a result, BlackBerry has grown up with the idea that security is a minimum requirement, and that has prepared it well for today's world with lots of different compliance standards (SOX, HIPPA, etc.). For all of the technical details about encryption, authentication, and data protection, take a look at RIM's BlackBerry security page.
3. Full manageability for IT
It's easy to think that IT loves BlackBerries simply because they've been working with them for a long time and they can control them better. It's also true that RIM has gone out of its way to build the kind of hardware, software, and backend platform that CIOs want and are willing to buy. However, IT's affinity for BlackBerries is mostly because they are easier to standardize and deploy to workers, easier to troubleshoot remotely, and easier to wipe when they get lost.
There are third party solutions bringing these same kinds of functions to iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, and other platforms, but with BlackBerry much of the functionality is either baked in and/or there are partners that have been bolstering the functionality for 5-10 years.
4. Integration with enterprise software
The biggest reason BlackBerries are so entrenched in the enterprise goes back to No. 1 and the fact that companies can build software to effectively integrate BlackBerries into their business processes and existing systems. RIM also gets a big assist from companies like Oracle and IBM that have provided hooks into their middleware and business software for BlackBerry.
That means that hospitals, manufacturers, sales organizations, governments, and other types of enterprises can put BlackBerry devices in the hands of professionals and field workers and allow them to enter and access data from anywhere at any time. In fact, RIM had an entire awards program at WES 2010 dedicated to companies that have created the greatest efficiencies, saved the most money, or provided the best services with BlackBerry as a part of these types of solutions. They've got lot of great stories that go far beyond anything RIM ever imagined.
5. Integration with business phone systems
Another asset for BlackBerry in the enterprise is its Mobile Voice System, which allows integrate into the corporate phone system. That way, when someone dials an extension it can ring directly to a BlackBerry if the worker isn't at the desk. And if the worker dials from the BlackBerry it looks as if it's coming from the worker's company extension.
At WES 2010 this week, RIM unveiled MVS 5, which adds Voice over Wi-Fi to the solution. RIM's favorite story for how this works is that if you're on an airplane with Wi-Fi (and basically all of them will soon have it) then your BlackBerry can connect over Wi-Fi and you can make and receive calls, with all of those calls acting as if they are coming to and from your corporate extension. A RIM executive said he recently did a 15 minute call this way with no drops and very good call quality. I'm skeptical about that, but this is definitely a feature that will be welcomed by enterprise workers.
But, challenges remain
Despite the strength of BlackBerry's position in the enterprise, there are powerful trends moving against it. Android and iPhone are gobbling up new users and becoming the darlings of global wireless carriers. It's mostly consumers buying those devices, but as mentioned above many consumers are bringing those phones into businesses because the phones themselves are certainly powerful enough to handle business tasks.
Many companies and IT departments are supporting this "consumerization of IT" approach by allowing users to bring in their own smartphones and connect to Exchange and Web apps, and this approach is cutting into BlackBerry's enterprise business.
Of course, in most cases the iPhone and Android devices are not integrating as deeply into the company's business processes and applications. That's where BlackBerry has its stake in the ground. However, what happens to BlackBerry when business applications become Web-savvy and are completely accessible through the browser?
The other side of the coin is that the consumerization of IT may only go so far. Many big companies will always need the control and customization that they get with BlackBerry solutions. In fact, for many of these companies, mobile is becoming more important than ever. It's possible that in the future many of them could quit deploying computers to field workers and just deploy highly-integrated smartphones. If that trend picks up steam, then BlackBerry is in the pole position for a big win.
So those are the two trends to watch when it comes to BlackBerry. 1.) Does the consumerization of IT continue to gain momentum? 2.) Will enterprises start deploying smartphones in large numbers as the primary computing devices for field workers?
The other thing BlackBerry needs in order to keep pace with iPhone and Android is a couple flashy new smartphones that generate buzz among consumers. Think about how Android finally started generating momentum with the Motorola Droid, the Nexus One, and the HTC Incredible. BlackBerry needs something with that kind of mojo. The BlackBerry Storm initially had the hype, but it turned out to be a dud and actually hurt the brand. That kind of flop can't be repeated. BlackBerry still needs some consumers on its side. If the consumerization movement does take off, RIM needs at least some of those consumers to choose BlackBerry.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.