The flood of iPhones, iPads, and Androids into corporate offices is destroying BlackBerry’s once dominant position in the enterprise. In a bold if-you-can-lick-them-join-them move, Research In Motion is striking back with BlackBerry Mobile fusion, a software and a back-office package that promises to bring BlackBerry-like security and manageability to competing hardware.
This may be an obvious move for RIM, but it is not an easy one. The company’s DNA–and the heart and soul of co-CEO Mike Lazaridis–is in hardware. Previous efforts to bring BackBerry functionality to third-party hardware, such as BlackBerry Connect for Nokia and Windows Mobile, were half-hearted at best and went nowhere. But RIM today is threatened with irrelevance and needs a desperate move to get back into the game. And the may be a secret agenda behind Fusion: It could be the solution to bringing full BlackBerry services to the troubled Playbook tablet and the new generation of handsets based on RIM’s QNX operating system.
Fusion may offer an attractive solution to IT managers, especially in Microsoft Exchange shops, bedeviled by users demands that they be allowed to use the smartphone of their choice for business. Of the alternatives to BlackBerry, currently only iPhone comes close to providing full support for Exchange, including a wide range of security policies. There are third-party solutions for Android, such as Good Technologies BlackBerry-like server-based system or NitroDesk’s TouchDown app, which provides support for a variety of Exchange-based mobile device management systems.
The big advantage of Fusion, if it delivers on its promises when it is released next March, is that it runs on top of the existing BlackBerry Enterprise Server and gives IT managers a single platform they can use to manage a variety of devices: BlackBerrys, iPhones, iPad, and Android phones and tablets. All of the existing third-party offerings require some sort of multi-server infrastructure to support all devices.
There’s also a curious little note in the fusion announcement that may hint at a broader role for the software:
RIM has clearly been having a very difficult time making the QNX-driven PlayBook work properly with BlackBerry Enterprise Server, a fact that helps explain the crippling lack of native mail, contact, and calendar apps on the device. The Fusion language still doesn’t promise full BES support for the PlayBook, but is definitely moving in that direction. A similar solution might help RIM bring BlackBerry services to its forthcoming QNX handsets.
All of this, of course, is a double-edged sword for RIM, because the better Fusion is, the more damage it may do to the company’s fading handset business. But long term, RIM’s only path to survival may be as a provider of managed services for enterprise mobility. That would be a sad comedown for a company that once dreamed of dominating the consumer smartphone business, but it may be all that’s left.