By Alastair Sharp
TORONTO (Reuters) - Along with firearms, radio and other standard-issue gear, Constable Ken Koke's police cruiser comes equipped with portable technology made by Research In Motion Ltd <RIM.TO> that he says has become an important tool in policing rural Canada.
Koke, with the Chatham-Kent police force in southwestern Ontario, uses RIM's PlayBook to run checks on vehicles and suspects. Unlike his old laptop, the tablet is portable enough to take out of the car to record evidence at crime scenes.
But for law enforcement officers like Koke, the big draw is RIM's acclaimed network security, a feature that Apple Inc <AAPL.O> and RIM's other competitors can barely match, and cannot beat - at least not yet.
Police, along with insurers, the military and thousands of government agencies, remain important customers for the struggling BlackBerry maker as a data breach could invite litigation, compromise reputations or even endanger national security.
"Despite the adversity and displacement RIM is experiencing across its enterprise customers, it's obvious that a hardcore contingent still see no solution better than BlackBerry," said John Jackson at CCS Insight, which advises wireless companies.
The loyalty of that core customer base is a rare bright spot for RIM as it fights a tide of defections to flashier devices.
Its still-unrivaled leadership in secure communications could also pique the interest of a potential buyer for the Canadian company, whose shares have sunk 80 percent since February 2011.
"When I go in the street I have my handcuffs, I have my sidearm, and I have my BlackBerry. It's part of my gear and not something I would leave the station without," Koke said. "The PlayBook is a natural extension of that."
NICHE NOT SAFE
But it's far from clear if that niche will be big enough to rescue RIM, which faces a continuing decline in sales for its once-ubiquitous BlackBerry, and whose compact PlayBook never took off with consumers.
RIM does not specify what proportion of its sales go to security focused government, legal and military customers, and analysts don't break that market out of the broader "enterprise market," which they believe has stagnated in recent years to make up about a quarter of RIM's 77 million BlackBerry users.
Unlike Apple and other rivals, security-focused RIM has built direct connections between its servers and those of carriers and big customers, and its private network offers encryption that others need help to get.
But the niche is not as safe for RIM as it used to be, given the arrival of smaller providers such as Good Technology, a private outfit based in Sunnyvale, California, that help companies beef up security on their employees' iPhones and Androids.
Such offerings may not be as convenient for a corporate IT manager as RIM's out-of-the-box security, but they have enabled many companies to let their employees use personal devices in the workplace.
The BlackBerry's secure approach is "becoming less of an advantage for RIM because, frankly, organizations are being forced to put solutions in place to allow secure access to documents and apps and other things on (Apple's) iOS and Android devices," said Tyler Lessard, who left RIM six months ago to join Fixmo, a small mobile security company.
To fight this challenge, RIM is taking an "if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them" approach, offering to manage other devices via a service it calls Mobile Fusion. Even if it no longer sells every device, the thinking goes, RIM can still profit by keeping office communications secure.
Several analysts say RIM's strength in security and network components could attract takeover interest from companies that deliver online content such as Akamai Technologies Inc <AKAM.O> or Amazon.com Inc <AMZN.O>. Amazon took a look at RIM last year, but decided not to bid after RIM made it clear it wanted to fix its problems on its own.
Ken Dulaney, vice-president for mobile devices at research firm Gartner, said RIM's connections into hundreds of carriers worldwide represent an "intriguing" asset that could hold value to Amazon or Akamai, the company that powers Apple's iTunes store.
At a current valuation of less than $6 billion, a fraction of its 2008 peak of $84 billion, RIM might look cheap to a company such as International Business Machines Corp <IBM.N>. IBM could use RIM's assets to expand corporate services on to mobile platforms, said Northern Securities analyst Sameet Kanade.
RIM's customer base alone could tempt buyers such as Cisco Systems Inc <CSCO.O>, he added, but cautioned that prospective buyers could also choose to build such capabilities internally.
Security aside, the larger market for smartphones and tablets is turning away from RIM, which now has less than 7 percent of the global smartphone market, according to Gartner, down from 13 percent a year ago.
CEO Thorsten Heins is putting his hopes on a new generation of phones, due later this year, as well as possible asset sales. He has not ruled out a sale of the entire company.
"The rules have changed," said David Krebs, vice-president for mobile and wireless practice at VDC Research. "They're not acting from a position of strength today."
A LOYAL CORE
But at the same time, the most security-conscious customers prefer the tried-and-true RIM approach.
Aviva Plc <AV.L>, one of Britain's largest insurers, has handed out PlayBooks to scores of risk assessors, the type of traditional road warrior that first worshipped the BlackBerry.
"For any role in Aviva that's collecting data, why would we use anything but the PlayBook," said Paul Heybourne, who heads the company's global technology innovation efforts.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon, RIM's single largest customer, this month approved six recent BlackBerry models for use on its secure networks, meaning some quarter of a million military and intelligence staff can upgrade to more modern devices. Counterparts in Britain and Australia followed soon after.
David Paterson, RIM's vice-president for government relations and public policy, said BlackBerry sales to the U.S. government are still growing.
"There is no mass exodus," he insisted, even after Washington's main procurement agency, the General Services Administration, loosened its BlackBerry allegiance to adopt an approach more open to RIM's rivals.
If RIM fends off its challenges until new phones and tablets are ready - and if the market embraces the new devices - its future could brighten. If not, a takeover could loom.
(Editing by Jeffrey Jones, Frank McGurty and Janet Guttsman)