BlackBerry Enterprise Server – Should you stay or should you go?

John Chen’s recent open letter to BlackBerry customers holds many promises for the future

John Chen’s recent open letter to BlackBerry customers, which happened to reach the public on the same day as the release of the latest BlackBerry Enterprise Service update, BES 10.2, holds many promises for the future.

In the pledge to enterprises and customers, Chen promises that BlackBerry is “going back to our heritage and roots” with a focus on handsets, EMM [enterprise mobility management] solutions, cross-platform messaging and embedded systems, as well as continued research and development. “Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated,” he added.

However, consumers and some businesses are slowly migrating away from BlackBerry because, from a user perspective, iPhone, Android and Windows Phones offer more flexibility. 

But as a de facto standard for business mobile device management (MDM), many companies are still using BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) for email on the go, leading to employees having two phones and raising concerns for the future as BlackBerry’s failings make the news.

A recent report by Gartner shows that in August 2013, only 9% of users at enterprises expect to still be with BlackBerry by 2016. As a display of the public’s lack of confidence in its redevelopment plan, BlackBerry shares dropped by 16.41% on the American Stock Exchange in light of recent announcements.

While there is news of interim CEO John Chen leading BlackBerry back into the light, it is becoming a growing concern that BlackBerry Enterprise Server may not be available for much longer, so should businesses be looking for other viable options?

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Hardware, software, or both?

Quocirca analyst Rob Bamforth says a lot of the appeal of BlackBerry products for enterprises was the ability to invest in matching software and devices to roll out across the whole company. 

“You have the devices, you have BBM [BlackBerry Messenger], you have the BES at the back – so you’ve sort of got a nice holistic whole. The trouble is, that’s not succeeding any more. But when you split that into the individual pieces, some of the advantages go away,” he says.

A report by 451 Research claims BlackBerry’s devices business has been in decline since 2008, and that selling it off will reduce costs, enabling it to focus on the improvement and deployment of BES 10 across all mobile device platforms, which may mean a move away from BlackBerry Enterprise Server could be avoided.

Nicko van Someren, CTO at Good Technology, points out that what businesses want from the technology is changing, and therefore the platform they want to use may change too. 

“A lot of enterprises are starting to look at how to migrate away from using BlackBerrys as their sole mechanism for mobility, both because they’re concerned about BlackBerry’s viability, which may or may not be a real concern, and because as a platform it’s historically been focused on those more old-fashioned conceptions of productivity,” he says.

Since the rise of bring your own device (BYOD), however, the need for a unified platform across a whole organisation has become less and less important, as employees do not want to be weighed down by a device they do not want; they would rather use a platform they are comfortable with for everything they need it for.

The time has passed now for focusing on the handsets. BlackBerry has really good quality handsets, but it's just been left behind

Rob Bamforth, Quocirca

However, the opinion among many of BlackBerry’s MDM competitors, as well as mobile analysts, is that its offering of BES 10 for Android and iOS devices was, although the right step forward, too little too late.

Bamforth agrees that to move forward, BlackBerry will have to make some fast decisions, which may include giving up on its hardware. 

“The time has passed now for focusing on the handsets. It has really good quality handsets, but it's just been left behind,” he says.

BYOD and beyond

Regardless of whether or not BlackBerry is able to continue from this point forward, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it no longer suits the needs of businesses wanting to adopt a BYOD plan. 

Nigel Hawthorn, director, EMEA marketing, at BlackBerry competitor MobileIron, says enabling device diversity is the most important aspect for MDM. “Many organisations which had a BlackBerry-only attitude a few years ago have realised that they now need to give people greater choice about what they use,” he says.

Whether enabling employees to use their own devices with BES 10 or without, there has been a great level of increased BYOD in and around Europe. “When people are supporting bring your own device, that’s where users want this additional flexibility," says Hawthorn.

Ian Evans, EMEA managing director at mobile device and application management company AirWatch, agrees that when offering MDM to enterprises it is extremely important to ensure that all devices are covered, regardless of the difficulty of implementation.

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“We all know the benefits of increasing the level of mobility in your organisation, and once you start doing BYOD you can’t dictate the policy of the device,” says Evans.

The best way to do this is to allow devices to be used for personal use as well as business use without compromising either side, something BlackBerry already offers. Despite this capability, many people still carry a BlackBerry device for work in addition to their personal device. Aiming to reduce people’s need to do this could be a step in the right direction.

Evans suggests that lack of device diversity has contributed to the move away from BlackBerry handsets and the slow uptake of BlackBerry 10. “We’re seeing most organisations come out with a one or two-device/operating system corporate use plan. Where you start to see the big changes coming out in most of these organisations are when they start to look at the rest of the device estate and BYOD,” he says.

Since BlackBerry has only recently started focusing on allowing other devices to use BES 10, it may have a disadvantage to other MDM software providers, such as AirWatch and MobileIron, which have been offering these capabilities for some time. Despite this, there has been a lot of uptake of BES 10 and investment in BlackBerry, especially in the UK.

BlackBerry turnaround will take time, discipline and tough decisions

Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza says BlackBerry should move away from focusing on hardware if it wants to succeed in its reform, but even that might be too late with the current market trends of consumers moving to Apple and Android and enterprises adopting BYOD schemes.

BlackBerry is an iconic brand with enormous potential, but it’s going to take time, discipline and tough decisions to reclaim our success

John Chen, BlackBerry

Although John Chen allegedly has no plans to scrap the smartphone side of the business to focus on BES, there has been speculation that this may be the best way forward for BlackBerry. In terms of its original approach of offering consumer devices, business devices and software, Evans says it probably took away BlackBerry's focus from its true market of enterprise-grade devices and enterprise security.

Despite the slow uptake of BlackBerry 10, dropping share values and lowered consumer opinion, Chen has high hopes for future of the business.

“BlackBerry is an iconic brand with enormous potential, but it’s going to take time, discipline and tough decisions to reclaim our success. I look forward to leading BlackBerry in its turnaround and business model transformation for the benefit of all of its constituencies, including its customers, shareholders and employees,” he says.

Regardless of any optimism an organisation has for BlackBerry in the future, it does not hurt to plan ahead. 

Quocirca's Bamforth advises users to have an exit plan in mind. "If you really bought into BlackBerry and think it’s great, then there’s a potential chance that it will still be good for the future, but all organisations should have some form of exit strategy in place,” he says.

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