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BlackBerry remains official Washington’s smartphone even as its maker’s fortunes decline

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Outside Washington, the world is moving at warp speed away from the BlackBerry. At its maker, profits are declining and executives are leaving, and the BlackBerry has even conceded its perch as the top smartphone in its native Canada.

Inside the Beltway, time stands still. A half million federal workers — President Obama and his staff among them — are still thumbing little black keyboards on little black devices. And that number hasn’t dipped over the past few years while Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s maker, has recorded plummeting sales everywhere else.

The slow-moving federal bureaucracy is keeping the BlackBerry around. But RIM’s intensifying troubles and thriving rivals are confronting Washington with a question: Should it break its “crackberry” addiction?

Some agencies are already loosening their policies to let their workers choose other smartphones. Lawmakers and aides can now bring iPhones into the halls of Congress.

But, for the most part, the federal government hasn’t joined the smartphone revolution.

“We appreciate RIM’s focus on security, which is paramount for government use,” said Casey Coleman, the chief information officer at the General Services Administration. The agency has issued some iPhones and Android-based phones for staffers, but the vast majority of its 12,000 agency-issued smartphones are BlackBerrys.

But Coleman added that other platforms are proving equally secure. The GSA, she said, places “a priority on adoption where appropriate of innovative new technologies,”

Agencies and big contractors note that the BlackBerry is cheaper than the iPhone and many Android devices. IT departments across the government have years-long contracts with RIM and the wireless carriers that promote the device. And tech staffers at federal agencies are trained to fix BlackBerry products, which makes it harder to switch to new technologies, analysts say.

Plus, newer devices aren’t as secure as the BlackBerry, some agency officials said.

The slow pace of change has made the BlackBerry as much a part of federal culture as short-sleeve, white-collared shirts were among NASA engineers or lapel pins are among politicians on Capitol Hill. Some analysts even expect Washington to become the last bastion for RIM’s devices.

That would leave many Washingtonians with smartphone envy.

Paul Silder, a government contractor, says he feels stuck with the BlackBerry that the Department of Homeland Security gave him.

So the 44-year-old father of two is left longing for an iPhone or an Android that he can proudly tuck into the holster on his left hip.

“I want a bigger screen. I only really use it for work, but it would be nice to surf the Web more easily,” Silder sighs.

RIM said it is making a full-court press among government agencies, touting the security of its no-nonsense devices.

“The federal government is a very important market to us and will continue to be. It is our core strength,” said Scott Totzke, a RIM senior vice president.

Just look at how hackers breached the accounts of Google’s mail service in the past year, other RIM executives have noted. And do you really want workers distracted by the temptation of claiming daily coupons or posting pictures on Facebook on their smartphones when they should be writing policy papers or legislation?

It’s not so bad being the smartphone version of a boring briefcase if agencies order more, the firm says.

“BlackBerry cannot succeed if we try to be everybody’s darling and all things to all people,” said newly appointed chief executive Thorsten Heins in a conference call last week.

Overall, BlackBerry’s dominance has quickly faded. Today, phones based on Google’s Android software account for 48 percent of the market, while Apple’s iPhone has 32 percent and BlackBerrys have dropped to a distant third place with 12 percent.

Last week, RIM reported quarterly earnings that missed analysts’ expectations. Its profit dropped to $418 million in the last three months of 2011, compared with the $934 million it earned during the same period in 2010. Several senior executives resigned their posts, including former co-chief executive Jim Balsillie. On Monday, RIM’s stock fell about 9.5 percent in regular trading.

And RIM’s focus on the government is hardly exclusive. Each agency chooses its technology providers independently. So competition remains fierce for their business.

That’s helped Apple and other device makers gain access to the State Department, NASA and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week promoted the use of Apple’s iPad tablets to improve learning in public schools.

The competition has left workers in a kind of device limbo, in which some have resorted to carrying two devices — one for work and one for play.

Christina Cox, a Washington events planner, plans to switch to an iPhone when her contract with Verizon Wireless is up next month. She’s willing to pick up the cost for the iPhone, even though she can get reimbursed for her BlackBerry bills.

“Everyone used to have a BlackBerry in town, but I need more than just e-mail,” Cox said about her BlackBerry.

Yet for some locals, the fancier and faster phones that have been quickly rolled out carry little appeal.

Lindsey Bowen, a 29-year-old program director at the Junior Statesmen Foundation, often has to defend her BlackBerry as iPhone- and Android-obsessed friends mock her device. Seen as outdated and uncool, it's become the Washington worker’s fashion equivalent of a hard-shell Samsonite briefcase.

“Tell us again, how many apps do you have on that thing?” they tease.

But Bowen recoils at the thoughts of a touch-screen smartphone. The embarrassing spelling errors with the iPhone’s auto-correct feature. The insecure thumbing away at letters and numbers on a flat screen compared with the satisfying touch of a raised keyboard.

“I love the keyboard. I just can’t get used to anything else,” Bowen said.

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