In September, Nathan Gaude, the mobile-device manager at accounting firm Decosimo in Chattanooga, told his co-workers to ditch their BlackBerrys. The number of devices there shrank from 40 to three. “We watched RIM really going downhill,” Gaude says. “They may not be around in a year to support their devices.”
Research In Motion (RIM) has spent years struggling to keep up with Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone and devices based on Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system. Its share of the global smartphone market fell by more than half, to 6.4 percent, from the first quarter of 2011 to the first quarter of 2012, according to research firm IDC. After RIM Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins announced yet another round of bad news in June—the company will cut 5,000 jobs, post a bigger-than-expected quarterly loss, and delay shipment of important new software—many longtime BlackBerry corporate customers accelerated their migration to other devices or started working on contingency plans.
BlackBerry differs from other smartphones because many core services—secure work e-mail, calendar syncing, remote data-wiping—are provided by the device’s manufacturer and require a BlackBerry Enterprise Server. If RIM were to disappear tomorrow, a lot of the BlackBerry’s most important corporate functions might go down with it. Because of that risk, some 50 percent of information technology managers plan to replace their BlackBerry servers with rival services in the next year, according to a recent survey by ThinkEquity.
That’s a boon to the startups that help companies manage all types of devices, including iPhones and Androids as well as BlackBerrys, on corporate networks. In the past five quarters, MobileIron, which provides secure e-mail and other white-collar essentials, went from serving 250 customers to 2,500. Accounting firm Decosimo switched to AirWatch, which says its customer base has ballooned from 100 to 3,000 in the last 18 months. The company was recently “disinvited” from a RIM conference, says AirWatch Chairman Alan Dabbiere. “I guess they view us as a potential competitor,” he says.
Good Technology, which provides secure corporate e-mail and calendar services at more than 4,000 companies worldwide, says sales rose 100 percent in the last year. “What RIM was doing for its own devices we are basically doing for the shinier objects,” says King Lee, Good’s CEO. Brian Carr, the company’s senior vice president for worldwide sales, adds that “in the last year I talked with half of Fortune 100 companies, and it’s a concern for all of them. Every single one of them is looking at contingency plans.”
In the event of a bankruptcy or sale it’s still unlikely that RIM’s service would completely fail. “RIM’s situation is dire, but even in a worst-case scenario RIM’s servers aren’t likely to get turned off anytime soon,” says Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. “The BlackBerry infrastructure and services are among our most valuable assets,” says Nick Manning, a spokesman for Waterloo (Ont.)-based RIM. “BlackBerry customers depend on our robust network, and they can continue to depend on it going forward.”
But as the company sheds engineers, it may be less capable of fixing or preventing outages like the three-day shutdown that occurred last October. That event caused Vlad Botic, an IT manager at London-based law firm Norton Rose, to begin exploring alternatives to the BlackBerrys used by 6,000 employees. “The problem with BlackBerry, which was highlighted when the service went down, was that the only way to solve it is with an entirely new device,” says Botic. Norton Rose started using MobileIron’s software to support iPhones and iPads, which were given to some staff members as secondary devices. Botic says Norton Rose will continue to use BlackBerrys, and he has scheduled a meeting with RIM to seek assurances that there won’t be a disruption in the event of a takeover.
Six staffers at Nationwide Mutual Insurance first began planning for the possibility of a disruption in BlackBerry service last year. “You could see that RIM started to decline,” says Robert Burkhart, director of new technology innovation at Nationwide. The insurer retained Good to make it easy for employees to switch to iPhones or Android devices, and today the number of BlackBerrys at Nationwide is down to 7,000, from about 8,500 a year ago. The number of non-BlackBerry devices used has risen from zero to 4,450. “We are well on our way to having a dual environment. So if RIM did go out, we’d be OK,” Burkhart says. “If people are starting contingency plans now, they’re behind the eight ball. They should have been looking at this all along.”