BlackBerry now only a niche player in lucrative MDM space

Thorsten Heins sometimes talks as if BlackBerry is already the market leader in helping companies run smartphones and applications securely and strategically — a market segment called mobile device management. Industry analysts don’t exactly see it that way.

On Thursday, Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. held a Webinar on mobile device management (MDM), during which analysts posted a slide showing all various players who are jockeying for position. Far from being positioned as a dominant player, BlackBerry was relegated to the “niche” category with security-centric firms like Sophos, Trend Micro and McAfee. For any investors who sat in on BlackBerry’s most recent earnings call or its AGM earlier this week — where Heins described offering MDM across everything from its own devices to iPhones or Android handsets as a key area of growth  — the Gartner chart would look like a somewhat frightening rebuke.

“The traditional leaders are still looking strong,” said Bryan Taylor, research director at Gartner. These include companies like AirWatch, which recently bought the mobility services division of Motorola, Mobile Iron and even Citrix, which bought a firm called ZenPrise that specializes in MDM.

Heins has admitted BlackBerry was slow to embrace the bring-your-own device (BYOD) trend in organizations, and it may prove challenging for the company to catch up now. Andrew Borg, research director of the enterprise mobility and collaboration group at Boston-based Aberdeen group, noted that based on research responses directly from users, the rate of adoption of BlackBerry in the enterprise has fallen into negative percentages, and continues to decline. That means BlackBerry won’t necessarily have an existing “in” with the Fortune 500 but will approach them as a brand-new MDM vendor.

“They’ve created their own potential competition by ignoring this market for so long,” he said. “That’s not to say they won’t be successful.”

What’s important, Borg said, is that BlackBerry shift to to treating its own devices as “first among equals” from a mobile device perspective. In other words, users will expect the same level of support across platforms and devices whether they’re using something from Apple, Samsung or any other manufacturer.

To really move out of the niche bracket, though, BlackBerry may have to think beyond merely securing third-party devices with its BlackBerry Enterprise Server and its recently announced Secure Work Space. Taylor said the industry leaders are continuously spreading their wings.

“They’re expanding into application and content management,” he said. “They’re helping users that need to transfer content between mobile devices and traditional PCs. How do you do that in a secure way so users don’t throw things into Dropbox or other sharing services?”

That’s an interesting point, because amid all the talk of “mobile-first” strategies within companies, vendors like BlackBerry need to remember that few firms today are mobile-only. MDM needs to be approached in a way that’s more holistic than what BlackBerry has demonstrated so far. BlackBerry still has some time and opportunity to innovate here, but make no mistake: this party has already been underway for a while, and it’s getting crowded. The best Heins and his team can hope for is to be fashionably late.