The days of government-issued BlackBerrys may be waning, but the reason may have less to do with the overwhelming popularity of iPhones and Android-operated devices than with the growing maturity of back-end systems used by agencies to manage their mobile devices.
For the General Services Administration, having an approved and functioning mobile device management system in place was a crucial component in its decision in recent weeks to begin offering its employees a choice over which smartphones and tablets they may use for government work.
GSA Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman, in an interview with Breaking Gov this week, confirmed that GSA now supports a variety of smartphones in addition to Research in Motion’s BlackBerry smartphones and its PlayBook tablet for government use.
Employees who need mobile devices for work may now opt for an agency-issued Apple iPhone and iPad or chose from a small selection of encryption-certified devices using Google’s Android software, including Motorola’s Droid smartphone and Xoom tablet as well as Samsung’s Galaxy tablet,” said Coleman (pictured above.)
Asked about Microsoft Mobile products, Coleman said they will be considered “as those devices mature.”
While the decision only applies to GSA’s 12,600 employees, GSA’s role in procuring more than $70 billion worth of products and services annually for federal agencies is likely to have a domino effect with other agencies.
The expanded offering is “part of a strategy to be more mobile in our IT plans going back to 2007, when we started to move from desktops…to more mobile options,” Coleman said.
GSA employees will be free to download applications to their mobile devices. “We are not restricting employees from downloading apps from Apple iTunes store, or from the Android Market,” she said.
“We are securing the devices so that there’s little if any data on the devices,” Coleman said. The devices function more like a viewer instead of having data stored on them, she said.
Doing so largely eliminates some of the common risks associated with mobile devices–namely, the potential for losing a device that contains sensitive information or for corrupting data traveling back to agency servers.
To manage the devices, GSA is using MaaS360, a mobile device management (MDM) software that operates over the Internet, developed by Fiberlink, based in Blue Bell, Pa.
MaaS360 was initially selected by the GSA as part of its effort to move forward with the government’s “Cloud First” cloud migration initiative launched last year. The MDM software service is the first of its kind to receive a federal government authority to operate, in accordance with the U.S Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) by the U. S. General Services Administration,” said David Lingenfelter, Information Security Officer at Fiberlink.
MaaS360 “offers the ability to manage all of these devices as an agency wide program … employing agency wide standards,” said Coleman. It also helps manage passwords, encryption, and making sure patches are updated, she said, although it is not used for managing RIM devices.
One of the reasons BlackBerry became the smartphone of choice for the federal government and the corporate world was not only its superior messaging system, but also RIM’s widely regarded BlackBerry Enterprise Server system, which gave IT administrators direct control over how the devices interacted with enterprise systems. It also had a reputation for a high degree of security, such that President Obama was eventually permitted to use a BlackBerry in a limited fashion after moving into the White House.
RIM continues to hold an upper hand in providing federal agencies with certified enterprise messaging. Altogether, RIM officials say the company supports more than 1 million government customers.
But BlackBerry has suffered mightily, despite significant growth over the past year overseas, as the company failed to keep up with Apple and makers of Android devices and as smartphones rapidly evolved into mobile Internet-based computing devices.
However, an executive at BlackBerry, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said that the company is close to rolling a new suite of enterprise tools that would allow administrators to manage and secure a full range of mobile devices, not just BlackBerry devices.
Meanwhile, RIM’s new BlackBerry 7 operating system has been certified by the U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology and the latest operating system, OS2, for its PlayBook device, released this week, now consolidates all messages in one place, including messages from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as personal and work email accounts. Contact cards are also dynamically populated with updated information from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to create a consolidated view of contacts.
The new features promise to “introduces a range of new communications and productivity enhancements as well as expanded app and content support,” said David J. Smith, RIM’s senior vice president for mobile computing.
But whether they will be enough to win back defectors even within agencies like GSA may be a tough sell.