U.S. Federal Agency That Switched From BlackBerrys To iPhones Has A Rethink: Plans To Test BB10 Devices Next Year

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Some good news for embattled smartphone maker RIM: the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has said it plans to test BlackBerry 10 devices next year, Reuters is reporting. A spokeswoman for the BlackBerry maker told the news agency that ICE will begin a pilot program on RIM’s new line of BlackBerry 10 smartphones and BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 (BES 10) early next year.

Update: In a release announcing the ICE pilot, RIM said the agency will be “among the first government organizations to pilot the new BlackBerry 10 solution”. At the time of publication RIM had not responded to a request to name other organizations planning to pilot BB10.

Back in October ICE announced it planned to end its long-standing relationship with RIM and switch its 17,600+ employees from BlackBerrys to iPhones – saying BlackBerrys “can no longer meet the mobile technology needs of the agency” – so it would be a massive win for RIM if ICE ends up staying faithful. However it is not clear exactly what the agency plans at this point — whether it’s just kicking the tyres of RIM’s new platform to consider its options, or intending to use RIM”s device management software to manage a mixed estate of devices (including iPhones), or indeed considering buying all new BlackBerry 10 devices for its staff. At the time of writing ICE was not available for comment.

Update: An ICE spokeswoman told TechCrunch the agency is not backing away from either iOS or RIM. “Given the nature of a rapidly evolving marketplace for mobile computing and the rising expectations of our users for that technology, we see the need to maintain a set of services that base support ICE’s mission. The pilot with RIM is a prudent technology management practice,” she wrote in an email, adding: “ICE and RIM have had a long and good relationship, and we plan to continue that relationship.”

Asked to clarify if this meant ICE might roll out a mixed estate of iPhones and BlackBerry 10 devices, or use RIM’s device management software to manage devices she said: “Again, we’re not backing away from either [iOS or RIM].”

“ICE will be participating in a BlackBerry 10/BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 pilot as outlined in the press release. Timing for the pilot is approximately January 2013,” she added. “ICE is developing mobile applications for law enforcement, and ICE is looking into how BlackBerry 10 may be able to provide mobility solutions in the future.”

RIM is very much in limbo at present — trying to keep its remaining customer base together and out of the arms of the iOS and Android-based competition while it transitions from its current generation BlackBerry OS to the next generation of the platform, BB10, with devices not due until the first quarter of next year. It’s also expending a lot of effort to get developers backing BB10 and building the apps it needs to ensure a healthy BB10 ecosystem.

Having a big government agency like ICE kick the tires of BB10 is exactly the sort of thing RIM needs to see and validates some of the moves it has been making.

In November the BlackBerry maker announced that BB10 had been granted FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standard) 140-2 certification — which certifies the products for use by government agencies and regulated industries in the U.S. and Canada. It has also announced a program for existing enterprise customers to get ready for the switch to BB10 — offering one free device per company if they start preparing to adopt BB10.

Reuters notes that RIM’s shares have been surging in recent week — with another share rally on Wednesday. RIM’s shares are currently trading at 13.14, up from 11.60 last Thursday.

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