BlackBerry returns to its roots

John Chen, CEO, BlackBerry
John Chen, CEO, BlackBerry at Security Summit

The key message at BlackBerry’s Security Summit last week in New York came across loud and clear: BlackBerry is returning to its roots as an enterprise-focused company. Specifically, it’s aiming at regulated industries: government, healthcare, financial services, and energy.

That doesn’t mean it’s abandoning its loyal consumer and small business customers — things like the upcoming cloud-based BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) 12 will serve them well — only that it has finally realized that it’s not primarily a consumer company. A BlackBerry is not, and never will be, an iPhone; its DNA is in security not trendiness.

Micro SD-BlackBerry combo in Secusmart solution
Micro SD-BlackBerry combo in Secusmart solution

The event was also a great way to show off the company’s acquisition, pending regulatory approval, of Secusmart, a longtime BlackBerry partner based in Dusseldorf, Germany that focuses on secure voice communications for government and enterprise.

BlackBerry CEO John Chen’s opening remarks may have been playful (he told attendees that the plugs around the room were reserved for iPhone users, and bragged about his BlackBerry Z30’s battery life), but he also quite seriously made it clear that the company is returning to what it does best: providing secure communications to regulated industries and governments.

To that end, the Secusmart acquisition rounds out BlackBerry’s profile, adding protection of voice communications to BlackBerry’s already solid data encryption. Secusmart’s secure BlackBerry received worldwide attention when it was adopted by German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2012. It is now being rolled out in NATO headquarters. Secusmart CEO, Dr. Hans-Christoph Quelle, pointed out that despite the enhanced security, a Secusmart BlackBerry is still a smartphone, with all of the benefits thereof. Admins do not have to strip the functionality from the device to secure it.

BlackBerry also described its plans to manage all devices in an enterprise. BES 12 will be able to manage both old and new BlackBerry operating systems (enterprises have so far had to deploy BES 5 for devices running the older BBOS, and BES 10 to manage BB10), as well as Android and iOS devices. The company is also adding support for Windows Phone 8.x to the mix, allowing it to take care of virtually all mobile devices from one interface. That move is long overdue; it puts BlackBerry ahead of most management vendors, which tend to prefer iOS and Android. BES 12 will be available to install on premises for larger organizations, or as a service for smaller ones. There are still questions about how this will work (BES interacts closely with Active Directory and Microsoft Exchange); details will emerge as the anticipated autumn release approaches.

For attendees, possibly the most interesting item on display was the upcoming BlackBerry Passport. A square smartphone is an oddity, to say the least, but there’s method to the apparent madness. Chen noted that the phone isn’t for everyone (though everyone I’ve spoken to about it wants to get their hands on one); it targets people who need to display more than just an email or a web page. Healthcare professionals, field service workers, and even business people who need to look at spreadsheets, will benefit from the high resolution 4.5 inch screen with its wider display, and the touch responsive keyboard. I compared it to a Nokia Lumia 920, which has a great screen in its own right, and the difference was amazing: a spreadsheet that required squinting and peering even in landscape mode on the Lumia was easy to read on the Passport. The keyboard’s top row is a set of soft keys that adapts to the context, changing from numbers to symbols or punctuation as required.

Mind you, how a square device will sit in the hand is another question, as yet unanswered — we weren’t allowed to hold the demo device. It appeared light, and is very slim, yet we were told it has good battery life. Again, that is to be proven. The hard keyboard, however, promises to be a huge advantage to users.

That’s why the second, yet-to-be-seen new model, the BlackBerry Classic, is equally important to the company. From all reports, it will strongly resemble the much-loved BlackBerry Bold, but will run the new BlackBerry 10 operating system that offers many of the features whose inadequacies handicapped the Bold, such as a browser that is actually compatible with modern Web sites.

BlackBerry is making big bets with its acquisition of Secusmart, and with the new devices, and those bets will determine the future, or lack thereof, for the company. Chen is optimistic; he expects BlackBerry to return to profitability this year, and the staff cuts have reportedly been completed. There’s even talk of some hiring.

To many outsiders as well, the company is finally on the right track. While virtually no-one expects BlackBerry to return to its former glory, given this is a very different world for mobile phone users, for the first time in many months, BlackBerry is making analysts and investors smile.

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