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BlackBerry shops abandon ship, weigh enterprise mobile device options

With uncertainty about BlackBerry's future, IT professionals and analysts look for enterprise mobile device alternatives to suit business needs.

Longtime Blackberry customer Norm Waslynchuk had a decision to make.

Late 2012 presented an opportunity for his company -- Toronto-based Abell Pest Control -- to review its options for enterprise mobility. As a veteran IT consultant who had joined Abell the year before, it was Waslynchuk's job to determine the best course of action.

BlackBerry has slowly eroded in the enterprise.

Benjamin Robbins,
principal, Palador Inc.

He had long recommended BlackBerry, a company with deep connections in Canada, because it always had the best products. But that year, professionals such as himself waited in vain for something new from the mobile giant to keep them from fleeing to greener pastures: Apple Inc.'s iOS and Google Inc.'s Android OS.

"I went to BlackBerry World in Orlando that year," Waslynchuk said. "There had been a lot of anticipation for a new product. We kept waiting and waiting and waiting. And then they gave out these BlackBerry alpha products to developers. The rest of us didn't get anything."

Despite his long history with BlackBerry, Waslynchuk said he's found the company's struggles and inability to keep up with competitors disappointing.

Abell previously managed about 100 BlackBerry devices among its mobile inventory, and up until a few years ago, much of its field staff used voice-only flip phones. Now, nearly all of Abell's staff utilizes Android. Several high-ranking officials use iPhones, and there are just a couple of holdovers on BlackBerry.

Within a month, Waslynchuk expects to decommission the company's BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) 10 server, with all of Abell's devices moving to management from enterprise mobility management (EMM) provider AirWatch.

"We have about five users where we'll have to replace their Q10s and we'll give out the rest as gifts," Waslynchuk said. "There's no need to keep them."

What's the best alternative to BlackBerry?

It's no secret that IT professionals have been migrating away from BlackBerry for some time. Analysts say the increased enterprise capabilities of other devices, poor business decisions by BlackBerry and its uncertain future have driven companies into more inviting platforms such as iOS, Android and Windows.

The steady decline of the preference for BlackBerry began in May 2008, according to Chris Hazelton, a mobile analyst and research director of 451 Research. Based on his firm's research, there were a couple of spikes for BlackBerry in mid-2012 and mid-2013, but the provider finds itself the third most-preferred option going forward.

Hazelton cited a ChangeWave Research survey of more than 1,500 enterprise IT respondents from August asking which smartphone they planned on buying for their employees, which showed that 63% said Apple, 43% Android, 28% BlackBerry and 9% Windows Phone.

"The market has really moved on it. Many businesses are moving to BYOD [bring your own device], but we still see a good portion of businesses buying devices for their employees."

Hazelton said his firm has been advising clients since late September to "prepare to move mobile away from BlackBerry."

Analysts recommend this in part due to the constant state of flux for the company over the last few months, with questions over who may take over the once-mighty mobile giant. BlackBerry is also in the process of laying off approximately 4,500 employees and cutting operating expenditures by approximately 50% by the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2015.

"BlackBerry has slowly eroded in the enterprise," said Benjamin Robbins, principal at Palador Inc., an enterprise mobility consulting firm in Seattle. "The recent news is a further excuse for businesses to move away from the platform."

There doesn't seem to be a clear-cut destination for enterprise mobility when customers decide to move off BlackBerry. Analysts and vendors believe it all comes down to the needs of not only the individual businesses but the preference of the employees using the devices.

"Many businesses now want to embrace a multi-platform approach," said John Marshall, the CEO of Atlanta-based AirWatch. "There seems to be a bias toward Apple, but it's important for companies to look at all the options they'll want to consider."

Waslynchuk said there were a multitude of reasons why they chose to go with mostly Android devices over Apple, including the option for more "ruggedized" phones to be used out in the field, more useful apps for his business and the option of easily replaceable batteries.

"Techs can be hard on these devices, and there's no ruggedized option for the iPhone," he said.

The Apple devices he's managing for high-ranking staffers were mostly a personal user choice for those employees, he said.

AirWatch is what Waslynchuk now uses for EMM at Abell, saying it's terrific for managing Android and Apple devices and that AirWatch has brought "a lot of innovation" to its product, with app-wrapping and a new Dropbox-like feature. However, his remaining BlackBerry devices tend to work best on the BES 10 server he soon plans to retire.

"BlackBerry won't let us do anything with their devices," he said.

BlackBerry loyalists remain

BlackBerry still has its supporters, among them Michael Finneran, mobile analyst and president of dBrn Associates Inc. in Hewlett Neck, N.Y.

"BlackBerry makes a good product, and they still have a loyal customer base," he said. "I don't buy into all this doom and gloom, but by no stretch of the imagination will they reach their glory again. … What they had is no longer unique."

The keyboard on BlackBerry devices remains attractive for professionals, according to Finneran, as well as its hallmark security.

"It's still, for my money, the strongest security play," he said. "It's a good workhorse and a well thought-out solution."

This week BlackBerry claimed that after the belated launch of BlackBerry Messenger for iPhone and Android, there are now 20 million new users for BBM and 80 million total worldwide.

Finneran doesn't think BlackBerry would ever go away overnight, but he advised IT professionals they always need a plan.

"You don't want to be caught flat-footed. Nobody knows an endgame scenario," he said. "I can't imagine anything would happen that would impair their ability to bring services to companies today."

Waslynchuk didn't want to be flat-footed when it came to EMM, and he made the tough decision to move away from the longtime industry leader.

"I doubt we would go back [to BlackBerry]," Waslynchuk said. "We've invested significant time and training to go to Android."

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Blackberry is still in use where I work and these are the older devices. There are no plans to change to the new ones anytime soon or change to another OS.