Research In Motion's decision to open its highly secure Enterprise servers to Apple and Android smartphones is a once-unthinkable concession that could save the BlackBerry maker's skin.
RIM, once the dominant force in out-of-office communications for business professionals, had little choice but to offer to manage communications sent over rival devices. The key question is how much it can charge for the privilege.
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"On the one hand, this sounds like very bad news as RIM acknowledges implicitly that their Enterprise business is under attack," said Sanford Bernstein analyst Pierre Ferragu.
"On the other hand, it might be the wiser thing to do in order to defend the service revenues of RIM that are about half their profits."
The change comes as companies increasingly allow their employees to access corporate data from Apple's iPhone and iPad, as well as devices using Google's Android software, even though the rivals don't boast the same security features as RIM's trademark BlackBerry.
It means workers accustomed to the features of competing phones no longer have to use their company-issued BlackBerry, viewed by many as clunky and outdated.
To bridge the divide, smaller companies are now offering their own software and management services as an alternative or addition to a BlackBerry service. The upstarts can ease IT department concerns about leakage of confidential information.
PLAY THE GAME
RIM's decision, announced this week during the BlackBerry World 2011 conference in Orlando, Florida, aims to stop its big business customers from looking elsewhere to manage the growing mobile arsenal.
The trade-off would likely protect RIM's sky-high margins for managing mobile devices, which previously came only from BlackBerrys that access corporate email, databases and other internal applications.
Even so, Ferragu questioned how much RIM could charge businesses to manage an iPhone, for example, which would offer limited integration with RIM's infrastructure.
The nascent device management sector was worth some $150 million last year and could grow up to 20 percent over the next three years, tech industry research company Gartner said in a report.
RIM's move to play the game rather than stand aloof will raise the pressure on security software companies such as privately held Good Technology and Symantec, which help to beef up security credentials for non-BlackBerry devices.
RIM has said the service, to be available later this year, would not offer its push capabilities or data-squeezing technology, nor its just-released Balance software that separates business and personal applications on a BlackBerry.
The smaller middlemen say RIM's move will push them to be more nimble and focus on what sets them apart as the industry grows.
"We like to think of ourselves as Switzerland and being able to play fair between all the different operating systems out there" said Robert Tinker, chief executive of Mobile Iron, a mobile device management company.
Mobile Iron, with 130 employees, added 160 enterprise customers last quarter and expects that to grow sharply.
"Mobile allows people to do work at home but also allows people to do home at work. Your personal and your work life intersect somewhere in the middle of your mobile device."
Rival Boxtone said it manages 70,000 devices at its largest customer, a financial services firm. It expects to increase that to 300,000, a business-enabled smartphone for every employee, within two years.
RIM's U.S.-listed shares rose 1.03 percent on Thursday to $47.86, well off their 52-week high of $70.54.