The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates plane crashes, has become the latest federal agency to drop its BlackBerry smartphones in favor of iPhones for reliability.
Already, far larger national-security departments and agencies — the Defense Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration — have shifted in the direction of iPhones.
The shifts mark a stark change for BlackBerry, whose handheld devices worked in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while East Coast cellphone networks jammed with traffic.
The NTSB, whose investigators respond immediately to plane crashes and other transportation disasters, says it's switching to Apple's iPhone 5 because BlackBerrys "have been failing both at inopportune times and at an unacceptable rate."
"The NTSB requires effective, reliable and stable communication capabilities to carry out its primary investigative mission and to ensure employee safety in remote locations," the agency said in a Nov. 13 government filing about its smartphone service to justify the switch.
BlackBerry's parent company, Research in Motion of Canada, which has struggled in recent years, plans to unveil its BlackBerry 10 smartphones on Jan. 30. The smartphones have already been certified to meet the needs of government agencies.
Paul Lucier, the company's vice president for global government solutions, says government agencies have trusted the reliability and security of BlackBerry for more than a decade and can continue to do so.
"BlackBerry remains the most reliable, secure and robust end-to-end mobile communications platform available," Lucier says. "We have 1 million government customers in North America alone who depend on BlackBerry, and more than 400,000 government customers worldwide upgraded their devices in the past year."
In addition to NTSB, which has about 400 workers, far larger organizations earlier shifted away from BlackBerry in recent months:
- In October, the Defense Department requested a software contract to monitor security for mobile devices from Apple and Android, but not BlackBerry. The Defense Information Systems Agency program will initially support 162,500 devices and could ultimately support 8 million devices.
- In September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which had relied on BlackBerry for eight years, announced it was switching to iPhones for 17,676 users because BlackBerry could "no longer meet the mobile technology needs of the agency."
- In May, the Transportation Security Administration, which had relied mainly on Microsoft Windows and BlackBerry devices, announced plans to spend $3 million on Apple products to support its counter-terrorism mission.
The decisions follow BlackBerry's failed attempt at touch-screens and its e-mail and messaging software being less user-friendly than competitors iPhone and Android. The new BlackBerry 10 software and smartphones are coming out under new management, as the company lays off 5,000 employees as part of a bid to save $1 billion.
James Faucette, a Pacific Crest Securities analyst in Portland, Ore., said earlier this month that BlackBerry 10 is likely to be dead on arrival, meeting with lukewarm response at best and is ultimately likely to fail.