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How BlackBerry could fend off Apple’s enterprise ambitions

Shane Schick
Fin - Dashboard - CA
A clerk arranges Apple's iPhone 5C phones on racks bearing the logo of China Mobile, at a mobile phone shop in Beijing December 23, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Files

I hope BlackBerry CEO John Chen dialed into last week’s Apple earnings call, because it provided a good glimpse at what his future competition will look like.

Instead of the usual rah-rah over the popularity of iPhones and iPads among consumers, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer spent a considerable amount of time talking about the segment the company has long ignored and which Chen has pegged as the key to BlackBerry’s future: large corporate customers.

“Many companies, including Accenture, Cisco, and American Airlines, have tens of thousands of employees using iPhones for work,” Oppenheimer bragged. “In fact, some, including Deloitte and GE, have over 50,000 iPhones each on their networks around the world. And based on the latest data published by IDC, combining business, government, and education institutions, iPhone has a 59 per cent share of the U.S. commercial smartphone market.”

This could explain why, as Business Insider Australia noticed this week, Apple has more than 100 job openings that include responsibilities for selling to or serving the enterprise.

Chen should be worried. While BlackBerry has long dominated the management of mobile technology in big organizations with its BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), that changed when most of the devices coming into the office weren’t its own hardware anymore.

Though Apple’s first Mac made its debut 30 years ago, until about the last five years it had more or less given up on commercial clients outside of education and graphic design. Over the years, its executives told me they were tired of trying to win over IT departments who found Apple products gimmicky or unsafe. Now, however, there are so many everyday employees demanding to use iPhones and iPads at work they have no choice but to figure out how to accommodate them. And when they don’t, employees often figure out how to use them anyway.

At the recent Mobile Enterprise Strategies Summit in Toronto, for example, I heard Nicholas McQuire, CEO of the U.K.’s Global Enterprise Mobility Alliance, say that office workers don’t even want to ask permission to use consumer gear like Apple’s. “Bypassing the IT department has become the dominant step,” he said.

Apple has no choice but to respond to this influx of business use by creating an enterprise sales and service organization that will keep such customers loyal. BlackBerry, meanwhile, has already been running up against a slew of emerging competitors in the mobile device management (MDM) space such as AirWatch and Mobile Iron, but these are largely niche players. If Apple is starting to take the Fortune 500 more seriously, Chen’s job will be more challenging than ever.

BlackBerry already began responding to this pressure by introducing technologies like BlackBerry Balance and BlackBerry Fusion, which allow companies to better manage non-BlackBlerry devices. Chen and his new team, however, may need to go even further. There is probably some reluctance to “lead” with an Apple solution to a business customer’s problems, but becoming more device-agnostic will demonstrate credibility to IT department and cement their trust. As bizaare as it probably sounds, the best way for BlackBerry to guard its enterprise foothold might be to start talking a lot more like an Apple Genius.