Federal government loosens its grip on the BlackBerry

Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST - ATF section chief Paul Vanderplow connects an iPad to a monitor and watches an arrest video at the ATF National Headquarters in Washington, DC.

Somewhere in America, perhaps at this very moment, a bad guy is under video surveillance. He is being watched, every movement, every step — but not on a little TV. That’s so 2009. Instead, a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is keeping tabs on an iPad.

This is not a movie. This is not a Steve Jobs dream. This is the federal government 2.0, where technology upgrades no longer come at a “Little House on the Prairie” pace. Even President Obama, a BlackBerry devotee, has upgraded. He now owns an iPad, and it has been seen on his desk and under his arm.

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The flashy consumer products that have been adopted in the corporate workforce — upending BlackBerrys for iPhones, Microsoft Outlook for Gmail, and lately laptops for iPads — are now invading the federal government. The State Department. The Army. The Department of Veterans Affairs. NASA. The General Services Administration is in the process of moving 17,000 employees onto Gmail.

The stakes are huge. The change may damage companies long associated with Washington work culture, but officials say the shift will make workers more productive while slashing billions from the $80 billion spent annually on information technology. The government is trying to keep up with federal workers’ interest in the new gadgets.

“The demand we are seeing now in the last 90 days has been just extraordinary,” said Tim Hoechst, chief technology officer at Agilex Technologies, which is helping federal agencies integrate Apple products into workforces. (Like other contractors racing to meet demand, Agliex practices what it preaches; it has replaced its sign-in book at the reception desk with an iPad.) “It’s like everybody is saying, ‘This is really happening here now.’ ”

From home to work

Analysts and government officials say the demand for consumer technologies is coming from two directions. At the top, agency directors and senior officials are using iPads, Android phones or Web-based e-mail in their personal lives and asking IT administrators why they can’t use them at work. But the bigger push is coming from frontline workers, who see the value consumer technology could add to their working life, making them more mobile and less tied to an office.

“People have better access to information technology at their homes than they do at work, and that’s especially true in the public sector,” said Vivek Kundra, the federal government’s chief information officer. “If you look at the average school kid, he or she probably has better technology in his or her backpack than most of us do in government offices.”

And employees are no longer taking no for an answer. A recent Forrester Research study showed 35 percent of workers in the United States either buy their own smartphone for work, use unsanctioned Web sites or download unapproved applications on a work computer. Why? Twenty four percent of do-it-yourselfers say the technology is better than what their job provides. Thirty-six percent say they need it, and their employer won’t provide an alternative. And nearly 40 percent say they use it at home and, well, they want it at work, too.

“This is about innovation and it’s about bringing new ideas and new ways of doing things into the workforce,” said Ted Schadler, an analyst for Forrester Research, which studies tech trends in the government and corporate world. “People now have easy access to technology that can solve problems.”

Kundra, the U.S. top information officer, said, “The line between work and home in terms of technology is beginning to blur.” Asked what he typically hears from workers about gov­ernment- or corporate-provided technology, Kundra said, “It’s not a question of whether they don’t like it. They despise it.”

So many consumer devices are being brought in by federal workers that Rep. Darrell Issa (R- Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, recently voiced his concern about authorized uses in a rather surreal hearing, in which he held up an iPad and asked a White House official, “Are any of these carried into the White House?” When the official answered yes, Issa replied, “So people carry a product which circumvents your entire system by going to the AT&T network on a daily basis in the White House, isn’t that true?” Eventually, the official conceded that was true. Issa said he is concerned about what it means for presidential recordkeeping. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Kundra’s answer to the issue of people using unauthorized devices is simple: Give them what they want. Like many federal workers, he carries two devices — a BlackBerry (for work stuff) and an iPhone (for personal stuff). And like many people, Kundra says he wants to be a “one-device guy.” He recently began pondering a radical idea with federal agencies: Let workers use whatever mobile device they want, apply strict security settings, and have the government pay a stipend for service. Agencies and cabinet departments, with the help of companies like Agilex, could then build apps for internal employee use and distribute them on private app stores.

Potential savings

The shift to consumer technologies is also about controlling costs: By moving to cloud-based e-mail with Google, the GSA says it will cut expenses by 50 percent over the next five years by not having to maintain its own servers and pay for expensive updates to software. The Agriculture Department is also moving its
e-mail to the cloud, though with a competing product from Microsoft, which is going head-to-head with Google on many cloud initiatives. The USDA says it will save about $6 million a year with the switch.

The new system is “always updated,” said Casey Coleman, the GSA’s chief information officer. “It’s always refreshed. It’s always modern.”

And GSA workers can easily access their e-mail from iPhone or Android devices, which the agency is testing.

The adoption of these consumer devices, though still modest in size, has been widespread across a variety of agencies.

At ATF, there are about 50 iPads or iPhones in use, and the number could increase to 100 soon. At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the 1,000 BlackBerrys used last year have dropped to about 700 as workers picked other smartphones. The State Department is testing iPads. Congress now allows iPads and iPhones on the House floor.

And the Department of Veterans Affairs is getting ready to allow its clinicians to choose an iPad or iPhone instead of a BlackBerry. VA chief information officer Roger Baker said not offering access to consumer devices threatened to harm the department’s services by making it an undesirable place for young, bright doctors to work. “The more we say no, the more stodgy we would look,” Baker said. “So we had to figure out a way to say yes.”

As iPhones, iPads and Android devices pop up more in government, it could spell further trouble for Research in Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry, whose market share fell from 21 percent in 2009 to 14 percent last year.

Analysts say RIM focused too much on its highly secure e-mail service instead of building a flexible application platform on which users and developers could innovate to make customers’ working lives more mobile and productive. The company also was late to the booming tablet market, which so far is dominated by Apple, with interest also bubbling in a slew of Android entrants.

“The best way I can describe BlackBerry is as a one-trick pony,” said Charlie Wolf, an analyst for Needham & Co., an investment bank. “The one trick was their secure messaging platform. Management has yet to understand that the world has changed. They didn’t understand that it was a software game going forward.”

For their part, RIM executives say they are making great strides in expanding developer interest in an updated version of the BlackBerry platform. And though a variety of third-party companies have popped up with services claiming to make iPhones and Android devices as secure as BlackBerrys, Theron Dodson, a senior RIM executive, said, “This is harder than it looks.”

At the same time, RIM quietly announced it was providing a new service allowing iPhones and Android devices to connect to its secure e-mail system. That was a tacit admission, analysts say, of the brutal challenges posed by Apple and Google.

“The rise of consumer technology in the enterprise — it’s here,” Kundra said. “It’s happening as we speak.”

 
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