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Ottawa opens door to Samsung smartphones, marking an end to BlackBerry’s reign

Over the next 18 months, the federal government’s IT department will begin offering alternative devices to employees, winding down BlackBerry’s long-held dominance in providing secure devices in the nation’s capital.

© Mark Blinch / Reuters

In Ottawa's parks, stadiums and streets, it's easy to spot federal government employees: They're the ones carrying BlackBerrys.

But picking bureaucrats out of the crowd is about to become more difficult.

Over the next 18 months, the federal government's sprawling IT department, Shared Services Canada, will begin offering alternative devices in what it calls "a new approach to mobile service to better serve its clients, use new technology and adapt to changes in the marketplace."

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Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. will be the first vendor of an Android-based smartphone approved for federal employees, winding down BlackBerry Ltd.'s long-held dominance in providing secure devices in the nation's capital.

It wasn't national pride that made BlackBerry ubiquitous in Ottawa. The Waterloo, Ont.-based company was always far ahead of competitors in devices and software that were hardened against security breaches. But now, Samsung finally has devices that match the gold standard set BlackBerry's past hardware efforts.

It took two years for Samsung to stickhandle through Shared Service's requirements. The company had to prove that, like BlackBerry, it could pass several military-grade certifications required by agencies such as the spymasters at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

"It's been a long road," said Paul Edwards, Samsung Canada's vice-president of enterprise mobility.

The move to open Ottawa's doors to foreign competitors highlights the inevitable end of an era for BlackBerry, which has been shifting away from the handset business and outsourced its manufacturing to third parties in the previous fiscal year.

The last BB10 device that met Ottawa's highest security standards – the ones Samsung is only now able to pass – was the budget-friendly touchscreen Leap in 2015; the last keyboard version to meet this mark was the Classic, which launched in late 2014. Neither device is still in production.

The Globe and Mail was unable to reach a BlackBerry spokesperson for comment.

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While BlackBerry has been the go-to device for federal employees who require secure e-mail access, there are also a limited number of Android phones and iPhones in government service that will be unaffected by Samsung's new access; for example, tweets from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's official Twitter account are often posted from an iPhone.

There are approximately 250,000 phones deployed to federal workers: a mix of BlackBerry smartphones designed with 2013's BB10 operating system, some older generation BlackBerry 7 phones and a variety of more simple talk-and-text devices.

For Samsung, it's not the size of the potential contract that's important – it sold 79 million devices in the first quarter of 2017 – but rather the reputational boost for its Samsung Knox security software. The company said Canada will be 30th government that has adopted Samsung Knox for its secure environments. The first new phones available will be Samsung's two bestsellers – the flagship Galaxy S8 and S7, both touchscreen devices.

"We have keyboard accessories, for older guys like me – over 45 – that are preconditioned to the keyboard," said Paul Brannen, Samsung Canada's chief operating officer. Mr. Brannen said the company has heard the frustration of workers who carry two devices so they can receive government e-mail and also use modern social-media apps and other software not available on aging BlackBerry phones.

Still, Ottawa's BlackBerrys won't disappear overnight – even if some workers tired of their two-year-old (or older) devices might wish it were so.

"SSC will continue to support BlackBerry devices, as well as start to offer a range of other smartphone options," Adam Blondin, director of public affairs with SSC, said in a statement. "Customer departments will be able to choose the mobile device that best fits the needs of each employee, based on device functionality and cost, and will be responsible for purchasing these devices via SSC."

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BlackBerry's BES e-mail servers and mobile-device management tools will be retained as the back-end infrastructure servicing all the new Samsung devices.

While BlackBerry no longer manufactures phones, new Android-based BlackBerry devices are still being built through licensing partnerships with groups such as China's TCL, which recently released the BlackBerry KeyOne.

"Other devices that meet Government of Canada Security Standards will be considered for use," Mr. Blondin said, leaving the door open to Android-backed BlackBerrys making a return to Ottawa's halls of power. That said, BlackBerry confirmed that the software security on its Android-backed phones does not currently match the standard of its final update to BB10.3.3.

While 43 departments and agencies will eventually gain access to Samsung's phones, the initial roll out will target such medium-sized agencies as Innovation, Science & Economic Development Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, Infrastructure Canada and Public Safety Canada.

Shared Services will also be rolling the devices out to its own IT professionals in the first wave. Mr. Blondin said users who want to retain a BlackBerry should be able to do so until Shared Services runs out of usable devices in its inventory.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

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