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Washington sticks with BlackBerry

Outside Washington, the world is moving at warp speed away from the BlackBerry. At its maker, profits are declining and executives are leaving, and the BlackBerry has even conceded its perch as the top smartphone in its native Canada.

Inside the Beltway, time stands still. A half million federal workers, President Obama and his staff among them, are still thumbing little black keyboards on little black devices.

And that number hasn’t dipped over the past few years while Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s maker, has recorded plummeting sales everywhere else.

The slow-moving federal bureaucracy is keeping the BlackBerry around. But RIM’s intensifying troubles and thriving rivals are confronting Washington with a question: Should it break its “crackberry” addiction?

Some agencies are already loosening their policies to let their workers choose other smartphones. Lawmakers and aides can now bring iPhones into the halls of Congress.

But, for the most part, the federal government hasn’t joined the smartphone revolution.

“We appreciate RIM’s focus on security, which is paramount for government use,” said Casey Coleman, the chief information officer at the General Services Administration. The agency has issued some iPhones and Android-based phones for staffers, but the vast majority of its 12,000 agency-issued smartphones are BlackBerrys.

But Coleman added that other platforms are proving equally secure. The GSA, she said, places “a priority on adoption where appropriate of innovative new technologies,”

Agencies and big contractors note that the BlackBerry is cheaper than the iPhone and many Android devices. IT departments across the government have years-long contracts with RIM and the wireless carriers that promote the device. And tech staffers at federal agencies are trained to fix BlackBerry products, which makes it harder to switch to new technologies, analysts say.

Plus, newer devices aren’t as secure as the BlackBerry, some agency officials said.

The slow pace of change has made the BlackBerry as much a part of federal culture as short-sleeve, white-collared shirts were among NASA engineers or lapel pins are among politicians on Capitol Hill. Some analysts even expect Washington to become the last bastion for RIM’s devices.

That would leave many Washingtonians with smartphone envy.

Paul Silder, a government contractor, says he feels stuck with the BlackBerry that the Department of Homeland Security gave him.

So the 44-year-old father of two is left longing for an iPhone or an Android that he can proudly tuck into the holster on his left hip.

“I want a bigger screen. I only really use it for work, but it would be nice to surf the Web more easily,” Silder sighs.