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* ICE agency to buy iPhones for over 17,600 employees
* Agency has used the BlackBerry for eight years
* Says RIM's technology can no longer meet its needs
Oct 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) said will end its contract with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion in favor of Apple's iPhone, dealing a fresh blow to RIM just months ahead of its launch of a vital new device.
The agency said in a solicitation document posted last week that it intends to buy iPhones for more than 17,600 employees - a purchase worth $2.1 million.
The agency said it has relied on RIM for eight years but that RIM's technology "can no longer meet the mobile technology needs of the agency".
It also said that it had analyzed Apple's iOS-based devices and Google's Android operating system and concluded that for the near term Apple's iPhone services offer the best technology for the agency because of Apple's tight controls of the hardware platform and operating system.
The agency said the iPhone will be used by a "variety of agency personnel, including, but not limited to, Homeland Security Investigations, Enforcement and Removal Operations, and Office of the Principal Legal Advisor employees".
"The iPhone services will allow these individuals to leverage reliable, mobile technology on a secure and manageable platform in furtherance of the agency's mission," ICE said in the document.
RIM is expected to launch its new BB10 smartphone in early 2013. The BB10 will come equipped with a revamped operating system and is aimed at putting an end to a precipitous decline in RIM's market share over the past year and longer.
RIM declined to comment specifically on the ICE contract but said that after accounting for the ICE move it had one million government customers in North America.
RIM's advantage has been what industry experts widely describe as superior security and device-management features, which have made the BlackBerry appealing to corporate IT managers and a crucial tool for police, government and military use.
But that advantage is waning with the growing number of providers that help companies beef up security on their employees' iPhones and Androids.