By licensing BES10 APIs, BlackBerry retreats to move forward

If MDM vendors can manage BlackBerry 10 devices, there's a chance that users at more companies will consider the beleaguered platform

For months, BlackBerry has been touting its highly secure BES10 (BlackBerry Enterprise Services) management server as the reason to stick with BlackBerry devices, whose sales have plummeted to a neglible percentage of the market in the last two years. Yet today, BlackBerry announced that it was licensing BES 10 APIs to competitors like EMC VMware's AirWatch subsidiary, Citrix Systems' Zenprise-based XenMobile unit, and IBM's Fiberlink unit.

So if BlackBerry 10 management can be done by the MDM tools commonly used today to manage iOS and Android devices, why bother with BES at all? At first glance, it seems as if BlackBerry is throwing in the towel on the crown jewel of its curent strategy: offering the best security for high-compliance customers. 

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What's actually happening is that BlackBerry is trying to do two things at once. One is to expand the sales of its BlackBerry 10 devices, whose sales are roughly 4 million a year (its older, less capable BlackBerry 7 devices outsell BlackBerry 10 devices about three to one). The other is to provide a high-security server for the lucrative niche of companies that want it. It's a risky move, precisely because it raises the question of why any company would want BES10 -- or its upcoming successor, BES12 -- if they can manage BlackBerrys from the MDM tools they already have for iOS and Android.

First, let me explain where BES fits in the market today because understanding that is critical to evaluating BlackBerry's latest strategy. BES5 supported only BlackBerry 5 through 7 devices, so most companies run it, even as most of them also use a separate MDM tool for managing iOS and Android devices. BES10's most recent version manages BlackBerry 5 through 10, iOS, and Android, in an attempt by BlackBerry to have customers toss those other MDM tools and centralize on a BES10 upgrade.

That strategy is not really working because BES10 doesn't manage iOS and Android as well as the leading MDM tools -- it doesn't support many iOS 7 capabilities, such as application management, for example -- and the low percentage of BlackBerry 10 devices in use has led many IT depatrments to stick with their paid-for BES5 servers for their legacy BlackBerry devices and avoid BES10. Yes, BlackBerry recently announced that 800,000 client licenses were distributed for testing BES10, but let's be honest: Those are free copies designed for tire-kicking. BES10 isn't in serious production use. BES12 is supposed to be the one that IT will actually commit to, but it's not due until early 2015, and by then who knows if BlackBerry 10 will be on anyone's radar. (There is no BES11.)

BES10 is also very complex, and I know several IT shops that gave up on using it for managing BlackBerry 10 devices; they switched to managing those devices via Microsoft Exchange, which BlackBerry 10 supports, unlike earlier BlackBerrys. As you would imagine, they don't need the kind of heavy-handed compliance management that, say, a defense contractor or financial institution (or even a drug cartel boss) does.

BlackBerry today gives IT two options: basic Exchange management or full-on, end-to-end BES management. Most large companies -- even financial, medical, and defense firms -- need something in between, which is what the leading MDM tools provide. BlackBerry's strategy of supporting just BES10 or Exchange essentially limited BlackBerry usage to high-security companies because very few users are choosing BlackBerrys in the kinds of companies that need only the basic secuuity that Exchange provides.

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