By Alastair Sharp
TORONTO (Reuters) - Research In Motion is introducing a software tool giving corporate customers the option of linking employees' personal iPhones to the BlackBerry network without compromising security.
The move, announced on Tuesday, acknowledges the deep inroads made by Apple and Google's Android devices in the global smartphone market, especially among younger users.
It is also a first, tentative step by RIM to offer its network services independently of BlackBerry devices, which have been losing ground to sleeker rivals.
Success with the strategy would likely help RIM defend its turf as the primary handler of mobile devices in the workplace.
"It's not an admission of guilt - it's a necessary evil," Suquehanna analyst Jeff Fidacaro said.
RIM's often-volatile stock jumped more than 8 percent to $17.82 in morning trade on the Nasdaq.
Even so, the shares are still down more than 70 percent this year following a string of delayed or botched product launches and disappointing quarterly results.
RIM's BlackBerry was for years the preferred device for businesses and government agencies, who treasured its encrypted data and distributed the device to millions of workers needing secure, round-the-clock email access.
But many workers now prefer using their own Apple and Android-powered devices to access corporate emails, raising security questions for corporations that RIM hopes to address with the new software.
"While a positive step, the larger challenges remain RIM's need to narrow competitive gaps in its handsets," RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky wrote in a note to clients, pointing out RIM's software deficiencies and limited content and applications available on its devices.
RIM's slice of the lucrative U.S. smartphone market fell to 9 percent in the third quarter, down from 24 percent a year earlier, according to research firm Canalys. Globally, the report placed RIM in fifth place, with 10 percent market share, compared with 15 percent a year earlier.
DUE BY LATE MARCH
In Tuesday's announcement, the Canadian company said it would launch its new Mobile Fusion device management software by late March. It will allow corporate information technology staff to set and monitor rules for passwords, apps and software on a range of devices, including Apple's iPad and iPhone, and smartphones using Google's Android operating system.
A company can remotely lock or wipe a lost or stolen device, a key selling point for security-conscious corporations that may have been wary of shifting away from the BlackBerry.
"What our enterprise customers are looking for, and the opportunity for us, is to become the de facto platform," Alan Panezic, RIM's vice-president for enterprise product management, said in an interview ahead of the announcement.
"We will take full advantage of whatever security capabilities are provided by the core operating system. We're not going to hold that back in any way, shape or form."
Mobile Fusion will sit next to existing BlackBerry Enterprise Servers, or BES, behind corporate firewalls.
Panezic said the software will manage RIM's PlayBook independently from a BlackBerry after the tablet - which has yet to gain traction with either businesses or consumers - receives a long-awaited software upgrade, due in February.
He declined to give any pricing details for the Fusion service, but said it would be competitive with rivals.
"It will help stem the tide of those companies that may have considered eliminating their BES but it won't help sell more phones," said Gartner analyst Phillip Redman. "That's what they really need to do."
"RATTLE SOME CAGES"
RIM has recently launched touchscreen devices using its legacy BlackBerry operating system as it works to put the QNX software powering the PlayBook on to a new generation of phones from early next year.
The new software follows on from RIM's acquisition of device management company Ubitexx, which RIM announced in May.
Smaller companies such as Good Technology, MobileIron and BoxTone already offer device management as companies fret about leakage of sensitive commercial information via their workers' personal, non-BlackBerry devices.
"This will definitely rattle some cages" among smaller companies that filled a niche by securing and managing iPhones and other non-BlackBerry devices for corporations, Forrester analyst Christian Kane said.
Panezic said customers had requested a solution to handle Apple and Android devices, but RIM would consider adding support for other systems, such as Microsoft's Windows Phone, if there was enough demand.
(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; editing by Frank McGurty)