The US Government's main procurement agency has begun issuing iPhones and Android-based smartphones to some of its 17,000 workers, in a move expected to hit hardest for BlackBerry maker Research In Motion,
While the General Services Administration does not impose its purchasing decisions on other parts of the government, the terms and conditions it negotiates can be used as a blueprint for other agencies.
The GSA - which manages $500 billion of government assets including telecom, information technology and real estate - is also testing the use of employees' personal smartphones and tablets on their secure networks, a popular move for corporations looking to cut costs.
"We actively seek to be progressive in our adoption of new technologies so that we can learn the lessons which will inform our client and customer agencies as they seek to go down a similar path," the GSA's chief information officer, Casey Coleman, told Reuters in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Once Washington's only option for secure mobile communication, RIM has struggled to offset a rising tide of companies allowing their workers to use their own devices for work or supplying them with rival devices, which have made strides towards matching the BlackBerry's famed security.
Coleman said BlackBerry remains by far the most used smartphone at GSA, with devices from Apple and those using Google's Android software accounting for less than five percent of the agency's fleet, which covers the majority of GSA employees.
The personal smartphone pilot is to supplement, rather than replace, government-issued devices, she said.
The agency has no plans to abandon RIM servers, which manage secure BlackBerry traffic.
RIM charges a fee for use of its servers and data centers, which compress and encrypt email and other sensitive data.
The GSA's move is just the latest hurdle to face the Canadian smartphone manufacturer.
Another US agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said last week it would ditch the servers that run its BlackBerry devices by June as it trimmed costs.
Oilfield services company Halliburton plans to switch 4500 BlackBerry-toting employees to iPhones, saying it is better suited to its needs.
Several banks have also welcomed BlackBerry rivals.
Like NOAA, the GSA has moved to Google Apps for Government which Coleman said had helped cut the agency's costs in half compared with its legacy desktop software.
The GSA plans to offer a service so other agencies can quickly order web-based email, she said.
"This is an area that is changing and evolving rapidly and as the market changes we will continue to seek to provide our employees with the best devices for them to do their best work."
(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; editing by Rob Wilson)
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