Will iPhones edge out BlackBerrys in Washington?

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) holds a BlackBerry, still the choice of official Washington. Her husband, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), prefers his iPhone, and he can hardly wait for Washington to get with it.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) holds a BlackBerry, still the choice of official Washington. Her husband, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), prefers his iPhone, and he can hardly wait for Washington to get with it. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rep. Connie Mack hearts his iPhone. He just wishes his staff would show the love, too.

When the Florida Republican began urging his aides to dump their government-issued BlackBerrys for government-issued iPhones, they mostly ignored him. Only Mack's chief of staff heeded Apple's siren call, making him and his boss two of just 86 iPhone users at work in the House of Representatives. Other aides still cling to the familiar, part of a sea of 9,140 BlackBerry stalwarts in the House.

This disparity also holds true based on retail sales or a stroll along most any downtown block at lunchtime -- evidence that Washington's attachment to the sturdy, e-mail-focused BlackBerry has been unshakable. No matter that the flashier, more Web-friendly iPhone has reshaped the smartphone landscape, letting users trade contact information by simply bumping phones or find the nearest Chinese restaurant by taking a picture of a street.

Although no one keeps a tally of government-issued BlackBerrys, they number in the tens of thousands, as evidenced by hordes of federal employees tapping away at them on the Metro.

Even outside the Beltway, BlackBerrys still far outnumber iPhones. But the Steve Jobs creation, with its thousands of downloadable applications, overwhelmingly dominates the country's mobile Web usage. Which is why Mack and others are waging a get-with-it campaign to square the federal government with how the rest of the country consumes mobile data and ignores spouses and children at dinner.

"There are people in my office who are bucking change," acknowledged Mack, whose wife, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), is also an iPhone enthusiast. "I think I can be persuasive. I'll let them decide on their own -- or I will force them. We're slow about adopting a lot of things in this town. But I can feel the change coming."

Evolving from an e-mail-obsessed BlackBerry town to a whiz-bang app town would represent a significant shift in how the government does business.

A program that turns a phone into a document scanner would let government officials manage their work lives on the go. Instead of e-mailing back and forth with several colleagues, a group could conduct a four-way instant message chat in real time. The shift from centralized to decentralized, from action to interaction would flow to the thousands of companies across the region that do business with the federal government.

"The iPhone introduced a new paradigm, the apps paradigm, and that paradigm is everything that matters now," said tech guru Tim O'Reilly, who has been introducing apps developers to the people who run federal agencies. "But a lot of people in D.C. really love their BlackBerrys, and they have a strong relationship with them."

"Love" may be too shallow a word to describe this region's fixation with the BlackBerry, an addictive e-mail powerhouse that so far lacks the technological innards for the rich, data-heavy apps that have become so popular on other smartphones. (No, not just games in which people throw sheep at each other via their Facebook apps.)

Washington is the country's eighth-largest metro region but the fourth-biggest user of BlackBerrys according to Localytics, which tracks mobile app usage. Best Buy sells more BlackBerrys in the Washington region than it does elsewhere, said Scott Anderson, the retailer's senior director of mobile merchants.

Memories of 9/11

Introduced in 1999, the BlackBerry was the first mobile device that could send secure e-mail outside the office, and law firms (there are a few around here, always hunting for more billable hours) quickly adopted the technology. The government joined in, making the BlackBerry an essential tool for communication.

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