Can BlackBerry survive the perfect storm of iPhone, Android, and now iPad?

Users are abandoning BlackBerry in droves -- but some hope remains that RIM won't sink

The BlackBerry has long had two significant strengths: It's a really good email device, and its security is top-grade. Those two factors made it the business smartphone standard for more than a decade, and Research in Motion has relied on them to fend off the unexpected challenge of the iPhone since Apple's device debuted in 2007.

Corporate customers did as RIM hoped: stuck with their BlackBerrys. But not any more. Is it too late for RIM to embrace the modern smartphone concept and remain a significant player? It doesn't look good, but there are a few signs RIM could make it through the perfect storm that started with the iPhone hurricane and reached epic proportions with the Android and iPad surges in 2010.

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RIM is losing its signature customers, and users are eager to jump ship
This summer, Apple's new iOS 4 brought corporate-class security to the iPhone, and two weeks ago to the iPad. A group of mobile device management tools has now shipped to let enterprises tap into that security in the same, familiar way of BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). Enterprises are eagerly deploying them.

In the last few months, more and more of RIM's signature customers -- the major banks, insurers, and auditing firms that need the top-class security RIM is famous for -- have been switching to the iPhone and iPad. Among the defectors are JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Crédit Suisse -- big, heavily regulated companies. Bank of America seems poised to follow. Hospitals -- another industry with high security needs -- are racing to adopt the iPad as well.

RIM's once-unchallenged security fended off Apple, even as users agitated for the rich functionality (apps, Web, games, media, communications) of the iPhone. CIOs and CFOs said no, because saying yes to the iPhone created unacceptable risk. Today, they're saying yes, because that risk is gone for most users. In effect, employees are making a beeline away from RIM's devices, though some occupations remain onboard. For example, President Obama, the nation's spies and military leaders, and anyone whose smartphone might be the target of industrial espionage probably should stick with a BlackBerry, since the iPhone doesn't match its on-device encryption strength.

It should scare the pants off RIM's leaders that survey after survey shows its customers want iPhones and Androids as their next smatphones, not BlackBerrys. Publicly, at least, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie says apps are just a fad, insinuating that customers will return to their senses and come back to the safety and familiarity of the BlackBerry. Such messages could convince users not to even consider RIM in the future, since its leadership has so visibly stuck its collective head in the sand.

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