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BlackBerry, Fairfax Buyout Collapses: Should Business Users Worry?

BlackBerry, Fairfax Buyout Collapses: Should Business Users Worry?
The future of BlackBerry and what it means for business users / Credit: BlackBerry

All eyes are on BlackBerry today (Nov. 4) as the deadline for buyout suitors came to a close. In an unexpected turn of events, BlackBerry shares plummeted following the announcement that the company fired its CEO and abandoned plans to sell itself. After failing to raise the proposed $4.7 billion buyout, Fairfax Holdings, which controls 10 percent of BlackBerry, dropped its sales bid and will instead invest $1 billion in the deeply struggling company.

While the move has left plenty of unanswered questions, one thing remains clear: BlackBerry business users may as well be left in limbo. What exactly does the future hold for BlackBerry and, more importantly, what does it mean for companies that still use their devices?

"Right now, the future of BlackBerry looks very bleak," said Craig Johnston, a mobile strategist at enterprise IT services provider NTT DATA, contributor at crackberry.com and author of the reference books "Professional BlackBerry" (Wrox, 2005) and "My BlackBerry PlayBook" (Que Publishing, 2014).

After a series of missteps, BlackBerry's resistance to disruption in the mobile industry may have caused their ultimate demise.

Although many believe that the arrival of the iPhone was the first obstacle BlackBerry faced, the first indication of BlackBerry's troubles came long before the all-touch screen device reached the market. When other feature phones were getting cameras and media players, BlackBerry, then Research In Motion (RIM), refused to add these features to their product, Johnston said. Nevertheless, RIM eventually recovered and became one of the hottest consumer and enterprise smartphones around, he said.

"The second misstep happened when the iPhone came out in 2007," Johnston said. RIM's position was that consumers wouldn't want to use a smartphone with no physical keyboard, watch videos and movies on them, or type on glass, he said. 

[What is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)?]

While RIM failed to react, others pounced at the chance to give consumers competition for the iPhone.

"This resistance enabled Google — which was working on a BlackBerry-type device at the time — to retool Android for touch screen and iPhone-like features," Johnston said. "It also allowed Palm to release the Pre and Microsoft to release Windows Phone."

The proliferation of highly capable and business-friendly smartphones led to the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement, which Johnston said companies started to slowly — then quickly — adopt, allowing employees to bring their iPhones and Android phones into work and connect to company resources.

"This started driving down the BlackBerry population, because, for years, BlackBerry fell way behind on features and technology and people simply wanted a more capable and modern device," he said. "When BlackBerry came around and started to address the problem, it was too late — they only released their new line of phones this year, a full six years after the original iPhone."

In culmination, BlackBerry fell from the most coveted consumer and professional device to one gasping on its last breath, fighting to remain a contender in the mobile wars.

Even security, BlackBerry's claim to fame and largest stronghold next to their iconic QWERTY keyboards, is beginning to lose its spark.

"Although BlackBerry’s reputation for security is unrivaled, the truth is that there are many Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) solutions available today that carry on the torch," said Walter Paley, an enterprise mobile security consultant.

With iOS and Android becoming more and more BYOD-friendly, business users have several security options to choose from that would suit their business (see below). The remaining challenge would be actually implementing the change.

"It is crucial to select a solution that leverages FIPS 140-2 validated encryption — the security certification used by BlackBerry and is now available on the iPhone — to ensure world-class security through the transition. Once you narrow the field with that requirement, look carefully at the methods for deployment and the user experience," Paley said. This includes implementing a pilot program to test adoption rates and the selection of the EMM platform, which will give your company the best chance of thriving as a result of the transition, instead of stumbling, he said.

Although the future of what once was the king of mobile remains uncertain, current BlackBerry users can analyze the company's future in two ways.

Vaclav Vincalek, president of IT consulting firm Pacific Coast Information Systems (PCIS) Ltd., said that there is a short-term and long-term future for BlackBerry.

"In the short term, current users don't have to worry about the existence of the company and its devices and network," Vincalek said.

Not only is the operating system solid, but the devices are also working and there are still many people using them, he said. "It is still the only device with a proper keyboard and many people need that."

Whether current users will still benefit from BlackBerry's offerings in the long run, however, isn't as clear.

"The long term is everybody's guess," Vincalek said. With the Fairfax buyout falling through, there are several roads BlackBerry can take. "There are talks about breaking the company into hardware and service, killing the hardware completely, and focusing on secure communication service and software on top of current systems. I don't think that even people within BlackBerry know which way to go."

One option is for BlackBerry to scale back and create a very small niche market for an ultrasecure communication platform, which might be popular with all the current NSA news, and cater to that market, Vincalek said.

"They can also port their 'BlackBerry Hub' to the other platforms and focus on what they were known for before — simple message delivery in any circumstances. Try to remember instances in New York where all the communication went down except for BlackBerry," he said.

Another option for BlackBerry is to follow Google's footsteps and let other mobile manufacturers use the BlackBerry operating system (OS), made possible by the future prospects of the mobile industry landscape.

"Consider the fact that Google bought Motorola and just recently came up with their own hardware for their own Android OS," Vincalek added. "Companies like Samsung, HTC and LG should be concerned about their long-term prospect — Google can start charging licensing fees for its OS and create major problems for all of them. Samsung is also working with Intel on another  new open source OS Tizen and, if successful, will create more fragmentation in the mobile space. Nothing should prevent BlackBerry to license its OS to others. Today's enemies, tomorrow's partners — or the other way around."

If licensing the BlackBerry OS to other manufacturers is viable, BlackBerry may stand a chance, even if they no longer make smartphones. BlackBerry users will still get the BlackBerry experience, just not on BlackBerry devices.

"The point is that it is still not clear if iOS or Android will rule the future," Vincalek said. "The fight is on and BlackBerry still has time to change itself and remain relevant. Time will show if the company is destined to be reborn or the relics will show through their patent portfolio in other products."

According to industry analysts, it's time for BlackBerry-dependent companies to look to less-troubled mobile solutions for their businesses.

"Gartner [an IT research and advisory firm] recently made statements to the effect that enterprises that are reliant on BlackBerry should start migrating off it and onto other platforms within six months," Johnston said.

In addition, although there are still loyal BlackBerry users out there, Johnston said businesses that may have been holding on to BlackBerry in the hopes that they do recover are now sitting up and paying attention — and are looking at other solutions.

"No sane CIO would be planning a new BlackBerry deployment at this point," Paley said. "The smart play here is to run, not walk, to other mobile platforms if you were still in denial about BlackBerry's long term chances for viability.  There is no upside to stick around for the bitter end, so plan your transition now and do it right."

Vincalek warned, however, against getting into speculation and market hysteria and using that as basis for change. Referencing Apple, which had its own comeback after being resuscitated by a $150 million investment from Microsoft, and IBM, which was near bankruptcy, Vincalek said that in the history of every company comes a time when it has to find new business, a new product line, a new way, a new leadership.

"What's happening right now is a huge distraction for the BlackBerry," he said. "You have investors, the market and analysts pounding this company to quickly 'do' something. While it looks like the ex-CEO's plan to do it with hardware didn't work, the new strategy is being worked out now."

Instead, companies should focus on business issues and how the change will impact their organization.

Businesses that were once faithful to BlackBerry have several factors to consider before making the switch to iOS, Android or Windows Phone. To make the best decision for your organization, Johnston said businesses need to do their research and ask themselves the following questions:

1. Do you want to have full device control or just control over company data and apps?  This is an important decision because it directly affects the users of the mobile devices. 

For devices that are company-provided, full device control in the form of a Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution could be used. After all, the company owns the devices, so they could adopt the stance that usability isn’t as important as full control.

For devices that are owned by employees, a Dual Persona — or Containerization — approach could be used, in which company data and apps are in a separate, secure container on the device, apart from personal data and apps.  The IT department has no visibility or control over the personal part of the device, but they do have full control over the work persona.  This is typically a great win-win solution for a company that adopts a BYOD policy.

The bottom line here is to do your research on what kind of control you need or want, and what kind of device purchasing policy do you want to adopt.  Both of these will drive your decision on whether to choose MDM or Dual Persona.

2. Which mobile operating systems do you want to allow? Are some more secure than others?

Most companies rely on Microsoft ActiveSync, which allows for secure email, contacts and calendar synchronization, plus some device control.  Depending on the mobile operating system being used by the user, those ActiveSync restrictions may or may not be applied uniformly.

ActiveSync is a good starter protocol for device security, but some devices have many extra methods of controlling and restricting them via what are called "extra MDM policies." For example, Apple’s iOS mobile operating system contains a huge amount of extra settings that can be set by the IT administrators to control, restrict and have visibility into the device.  On the other hand, Google’s Android does not, which is why we see far fewer Android devices in the enterprise than iOS. Samsung, however, has cloned Apple’s enterprise approach to an extent, and has a special version of Android that can also be secured, restricted, and controlled like iOS.

Again, the bottom line is to do your research on the security of mobile operating systems.  Decide whether to restrict devices to just one or two operating systems — for instance, strictly iOS.  If you decide that you want to allow more mobile operating systems, look into Dual Persona. Because Dual Persona has everything in a separate container, it allows IT policies to be completely uniform regardless of what device is being used.

3. How much money are you willing to spend?

Microsoft ActiveSync, which provides a bit of device security and the ability remotely wipe the device if it is lost or stolen, is free in many situations.

Apple’s Configurator tool is also free.  This tool allows you to provision iOS devices from a computer, applying all of the extra lockdown and control policies.  The combination of free ActiveSync and free Apple Configurator will provide you excellent device security, but only if you use just iPhones or iPads.

If you need to support iOS, Android and Windows Phone, then you’ll likely need to sign up for either a Dual Persona or MDM solution.  These solutions vary in the monthly or annual pricing, and luckily, many allow you to use them as a 100 percent cloud solution or have the servers on-premise.  Having a cloud solution saves you the cost of running physical or virtual server(s). MDM or Dual Person is also an option if you do not want to connect devices to computers to provision them or dedicate a resource to do this.

MDM and Dual Persona systems can also become the only choice if you want to provide access to some company resources like SharePoint.  Many vendors have built-in functionality to allow access to SharePoint and other systems.

Originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.

Sara Angeles

Sara is a tech writer with a background in business and marketing. After graduating from UC Irvine, she worked as a copywriter and blogger for nonprofit organizations, tech labs and lifestyle companies. She started freelancing in 2009 and joined Business News Daily in 2013. Follow Sara Angeles on Twitter @sara_angeles.