Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Defense Department said today it will begin opening its communications networks by next February to mobile phones and tablet computers from Apple Inc. and Google Inc.
The move may pose a threat to BlackBerry’s dominance at the Pentagon, which has more than 450,000 of the company’s devices. BlackBerry has lost market share to competitors and seeks to make a comeback with its new BlackBerry 10 phone. The device will go on sale in the U.S. next month.
The Pentagon said it wants employees to have the flexibility to use commercial products on its systems, including its classified network for the first time. It plans to create a military mobile applications store and hire a contractor to build a system that may eventually handle as many as 8 million devices.
“This is not simply about embracing the newest technology –- it is about keeping the department’s workforce relevant in an era when information accessibility and cybersecurity play a critical role in mission success,” Teri Takai, the department’s chief information officer, said in a statement.
Shares of Waterloo, Ontario-based BlackBerry fell 19 cents, or 1.4 percent, to close at $13.06.
Following the BlackBerry 10’s international release, the company has received “outstanding feedback” from customers, David Smith, the company’s executive vice president of mobile computing, said in an e-mail.
Government workers can use BlackBerry’s new technology to keep “sensitive information secure without compromising a great user experience,” Smith said.
Spokesmen for Cupertino, California-based Apple and Mountain View, California-based Google didn’t respond to e-mails and phone messages requesting comment.
The Pentagon has more than 600,000 mobile devices, including 470,000 BlackBerrys, 41,000 Apple products and 8,700 platforms running Google’s Android operating system, according to the statement. Many of the Apple and Android products aren’t connected to Defense Department networks except for testing.
The department uses two communications networks to exchange data such as e-mails and documents -- one for unclassified information and another for classified material. Most of the BlackBerrys work only on the unclassified network, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said in a telephone interview.
That will change with the new mobile architecture, which “permits the use of commercial products for classified communications for the first time,” the department said in a statement.
The Air Force last year awarded a $9.36 million contract to buy as many as 18,000 Apple iPad 2s to replace the bags of paper manuals and charts carried by pilots and navigators.
While the military has relied on BlackBerrys, it has been testing the Apple and Google Android devices.
“We’re device-agnostic,” Air Force Major General Robert Wheeler said today during a press conference at the Pentagon. “What we’re looking for is to have a family of devices” approved for use by personnel ranging from junior enlisted members to senior officials, he said.
For now, the networks will remain closed to wireless devices owned by military personnel, according to the Defense Department.
The recent bring-your-own-device trend in the civilian workplace “presents many compelling benefits,” though existing Pentagon policies and security vulnerabilities “prevent the adoption of devices that are unapproved and procured outside of official government acquisition,” Takai said in an attachment to a memo dated Feb. 15 and released today.
The Defense Information Systems Agency plans to select a company or group of firms by early summer to develop the architecture to manage mobile devices and distribute software applications, according to John Hickey, mobility program manager at the agency.
More than 40 companies, including Falls Church, Virginia-based General Dynamics Corp., have expressed interest in the agency’s notice about the competition. The agency has also been in talks with carriers such as Verizon Communications Inc., Hickey said.
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