New Digital Government Plan Could Mean Bye-Bye BlackBerry

National Journal

Official Washington is one of the last redoubts of the thumb-tapping BlackBerry user. The new Digital Government Strategy, released on Wednesday, contains hints that the BlackBerry is on the way out as federal government’s leading mobile device.

For R.I.M., the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, the key phrase in the document is “device-agnostic security and privacy controls.” For IT specialists, a big part of the appeal of Blackberry has been in its secure connection to data servers. The government now is looking to secure its data at the source, rather than secure individual devices.

As part of the plan, the General Services Administration has been tasked with creating “government-wide mobile-device management platform” that is designed to work across operating systems. The Federal Chief Information Officer Council is due to release guidelines for federal workers who want to use their personal devices to access their work e-mail and information. 

“It seems like this is less about the government being disenchanted with BlackBerry per se and more their moving in the same direction as private industry – to a BYOD [bring your own device] policy," Noah Elkin, a senior analyst with the research firm eMarketer, said. For government, he said, “this involves adding security at the source, rather than relying on a third party as a middle layer.”

BlackBerry’s rate of diminution has accelerated in the last year, as a result of robust competition from Android and Apple’s iOS, its own well-publicized outages, and a new touch-screen tablet called the Playbook that turned out to be a marketing bust. In April 2011, BlackBerry commanded 23.1 percent of the mobile operating system market, according to StatCounter. As of this April, BlackBerry accounted for just 4.25 percent of mobile devices.

As the R.I.M. devices evolved into a market niche, security-conscious government agencies could be relied on as steady customers. A January 2012 survey conducted by National Journal found that federal executives were ditching the device in droves, with only 57 percent reporting BlackBerry use, down from 76 percent in 2009. Among congressional staffers, 77 percent use BlackBerrys, compared with 93 percent in 2009. According to the The Washington Post, about half a million federal workers, including the president and his staff, use BlackBerrys. 

President Obama released a memo timed to the announcement directing government agencies to adopt the new data standards and to follow the plan’s timeline for changing the way the government delivers digital and mobile content and procures mobile devices and wireless services.

All agencies are due to take inventory of their mobile devices and service contracts, with an eye to centralizing procurement and extract savings on the reported $1.2 billion the government spends each year on its 1.5 million users.

The public face of Digital Government is a a plan to make government data open, accessible, and "machine readable," to encourage programmers and developers to build mobile applications. 

So far, the government rollout of consumer-facing apps has thus far been fragmentary and a bit oversold. For example, a Transportation Security Administration app promises info on wait times in airport-security lines nationwide, but it relies on users to report data in real time for it to be effective.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Steven VanRoekel, in his presentation at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York, held out the promise of much greater access to real-time data and government services online. With secure online identities, it could be possible to file taxes and even vote using a mobile device.

“Open data is the new default,"VanRoekel said. He promised to unlock data that is stored in paper files, databases, and documents and publish it for developers who want to use the information to develop mobile applications.

White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park called for developers to partner with government and sign up for six-month stints under a new Presidential Innovation Fellows program. He told developers that it was time for them to “kick ass for their country.”

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