RIM’s risk: To think beyond the BlackBerry

I’ve met a number of people who work at General Motors but prefer to buy and drive a Hyundai or a Toyota. There are maître d’s who would never want to eat in the restaurants where they work. So why is it so weird to imagine a Research In Motion employee using an iPhone?

RIM is soon expected to announce a new version of Balance, the software that allows a BlackBerry to work in a sort of split personality mode. On one side you might be using a device for Facebook and personal banking. The other side would give access to business-related data and applications, which would still be controlled and protected by employers.

What’s sometimes forgotten is that RIM also offers BlackBerry Mobile Fusion, a tool that can help support iOS or Android devices. The idea is that, instead of forcing ugly or antiquated smartphones upon unsatisfied workers, companies can accommodate whatever people want as part of bring-your-own-device programs, or BYOD.

Why would RIM do this, you ask? For one thing, they’re not alone. VMware, among others, offers similar technology to enable more device choice. Plus, over the last few years, RIM’s biggest growth has been outside of North America, which is also where BYOD is happening the fastest.

According to a recent global survey by London-based Ovum, 75 per cent of respondents in the emerging, “high-growth” markets (including Brazil, Russia, India, UAE, and Malaysia) demonstrate a much higher propensity to use their own devices at work, compared to 44 per cent in more mature markets. Even if some people move to non-BlackBerry devices, by helping companies offer more flexibility to employees RIM has a good shot at retaining its reputation as the responsible choice for the enterprise.

If anything, RIM’s willingness to face the BYOD threat head-on may stem from within. Richard Absalom, Ovum’s senior analyst of consumer impact technology, notes that Cisco, SAP, IBM and others already offer their own employees the freedom to pick their own smartphone.

“High-tech companies are by their nature filled with tech-savvy employees who want to use the latest and greatest gadgets at all times,” he said. “This is to be expected, especially among such services companies that are either promoting certain devices or helping their own customers to deal with the challenges of BYOD – they want to be seen to be setting an example," says Absalom.

RIM’s strategy is in stark contrast to Apple, whose proprietary approach to hardware and software is beginning more and more to resemble a country club to which the firm thinks customers should feel grateful for being granted access. According to Krista Napier, senior mobility analyst at IDC Canada in Toronto, there’s no question companies here will have to start weighing their options around what constitutes a “work cell” this year.

“More Canadian companies will wake up the BYOD reality taking place,” she said, but they need to first look at how they manage the apps on those employee-purchased smartphones. “Businesses are planning to invest in managed mobility solutions in 2013 in a big way.”

Lots of companies pay lip service to the idea of putting their customers’ interests first, but it takes a lot of humility and courage to transcend your own brand and solve a real problem. As far as its BYOD strategy goes, no one can accuse RIM of phoning this one in.

CEO Heins on What's Next For RIMCNBC's Jon Fortt talks with Research in Motion CEO,Thorsten Heins, about the company's mixed Q3 earnings and the launch of its new BlackBerry 10.

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