MobilityRegulationSecuritySmartphonesWorkspace

BlackBerry: From Police Tool To Looters’ Toy?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

The UK police’s BlackBerry project has been criticised, but is kicking BlackBerry just this year’s fashion, asks Peter Judge

Criticism of the British police’s use of BlackBerry devices is just the latest bit of bad news for Research In Motion (RIM), but it seems somehow symbolic of the remarkable fall from grace of the company’s mobile devices.

Five years ago, when the police started to equip officers with BlackBerry smartphones, the device was an obviously good fit: serious and businesslike, with a reputation for security. Now, the company is struggling to maintain its profile in a cut-throat mobile market, while the devices are as likely to be associated with disaffected youngsters.

Cheap and secure – what’s wrong with that?

The success of RIM’s move into the consumer market, and the security of the BlackBerry Messenger service made the phones a natural choice for looters during last summer’s riots, with reports claiming that the riots and looting were co-ordinated over BBM.

After the riots, RIM offered police access to messages – something which has been very controversial in other countries. RIM even once told the Indian government that it could not decrypt BBM messages.

It was only a year before that, that the Canadian phone maker was eager to tell everyone that it was saving the British police £112 million a year by allowing officers to file reports and access information without having to return to the police station.

As it turns out, the National Audit Office has now poured scorn on the cost savings of BlackBerrys, saying the project was not managed well.  The NAO reckons a BlackBerry can save a police officer on average 18 minutes per day, which doesn’t sound very much.

However, if all 41,000 BlackBerrys are in use (and some weren’t), then that works out at 12,300 hours saved per day. Multiply that by 225 working days a year,  and the police is saving 2.8 million hours. Now, I don’t know how much it costs per hour to keep a police officer on the beat, but if it happened to be £40 per hour, then the NAO figures would suggest the police could actually be making that £112 million saving.

Of course, the NAO has looked into the fact that the project wasn’t well managed, and some of the effort was wasted. But I have a feeling today’s news reports are overstating the case, and kicking the smartphone maker when it is down.

Declining revenues, and delayed products forced the company to ditch its co-CEOs and change its management. Its real problem, though is one of image. Its products are not cool compared with iPhone or even Android devices.

Auditors may have found genuine problems with the police BlackBerry project. But the story has got covered widely because of the prevailing wind of fashion.