Thorsten Heins: the only exec in the mobile biz that gets post-PC

Thorsten Heins: the only exec in the mobile biz that gets post-PC

Summary: BlackBerry's CEO really understands post-PC, but he seems unkeen to take a leadership position on the evolution of tablet devices...

TOPICS: Smartphones, Tablets
Thorsten Heins
Thorsten Heins on stage at BlackBerry Live this week. Here's an individual who really *gets* post-PC.

Back in February, I wrote about how BlackBerry's relationship with post-PC concepts ran much deeper than the other mobile providers, even Apple.

Go back ten years and the BlackBerry handsets available then were post-PC devices by a number of important measures: they were relationship-centric, they were appliance-like, and using them required little cognitive load. They were simple, always-available, always-connected devices that did the job of keeping people connected with their digital network fantastically well.

I've been at BlackBerry Live in Orlando this week, and in his keynote speech, BlackBerry's CEO Thorsten Heins laboured a couple of very interesting points.

He spoke again and again about "mobile," about how mobile compute devices would be the only important type of compute device going forward. He distanced himself and his company from the PC (the implication being that death of the PC would relegate it to niche use in the enterprise), always reiterating his focus on mobile.

Regardless, it was what Heins said in the press Q&A afterwards where things got interesting.


The session started with a few questions, and Heins kept on his "mobile, mobile, mobile" mantra.

Then someone asked about Heins's comments last week about BlackBerry's attitude towards tablets.

This was widely reported as being that Heins thought, "tablets would not be important in five years time." What he actually meant by this, and as he now clarified in the Q&A, was that Heins believes in a vision of "modular computing." He spoke (and reiterated many times during the talk) of the idea of the "phone on your hip" being everything you need, the idea being that if you want a "large screen experience," you go up to some dumb display and mate the two together.

Just in case you were wondering whether that answer was just an anomaly, a little later someone else asked the same question and got the same answer. Heins believes in one device to rule them all.

This troubled me, as modular computing suggests a level of complexity that is incompatible with post-PC. The beauty of post-PC is that it requires no complex thought to use it, i.e. it has very low "cognitive loading." Another way to put this is that you don't have to muck around with something to make it work.

For example, you're working on a presentation on your PC. It's late, and you want to go to bed. You shut the lid of your laptop, retire to the bedroom and pick up your tablet to watch some Netflix. Except your tablet doesn't work because it's modular and takes its processing horsepower from your phone. So you get out of bed, and you find your smartphone, and you plug it into your dumb, modular tablet. Except your smartphone doesn't have any power. So you have to find a charging cable. But the charging cable doesn't reach to where you want to prop the tablet to watch TV.

So you give up, and pick up your modular Kindle-esque e-reader. But that requires your smartphone. You close your eyes and count sheep. The following week, your spouse buys you a new smartphone. It's now a different shape and no longer slots into the back of your dumb tablet, so you buy a new dumb tablet.

Et cetera. Modular computing is too complicated. Plus, we've been able to do modular computing for 20 years and no one has ever used it to life-changing effect.

However, modular computing appeals to technologists because it salves their rage against the inherent inefficiency in post-PC machines. Post-PC makes no sense from an engineering perspective. In the post-PC world, having both a smartphone and a tablet that do roughly similar things is something that users do without thinking about it. But that is so inefficient — two screens, two batteries, two persistent data stores, etc. Technologists love to try and combine these things together and create what they wrongly call "convergence."

What they're actually describing is "hybridity" — this being the basic process of combining things together to make a new thing. The problem is that not all hybridity experiments work. An hybridity experiment to combine a portable cellular telephone and a compact camera did work, and we ended up with the cameraphone.

Only when a hybridity experiment works do we get convergence (as per the cameraphone).

But those experiments fail more often than not. I hate to point the finger at Windows 8 and it's OEM partners, but those guys are giving a masterclass in how to fail at convergence 24/7 at this point by making a continual stream of hybrid rubbish that offers no converged value. This also applies to Windows 8 itself, a good demonstration of why sticking together two different operating systems with duct-tape doesn't automatically create convergence.

The grand plan

Back to Heins, and the part where I get confused. On the one hand, you have a CEO who seems to understand ideas around the death of the PC, relationship-centric computing, post-PC, etc., but seems keen to actively avoid pushing his vision into the tablet space. If tablets are going to be replaced by some modular computing doodad or doodads, surely Heins would like to be the one to tell everyone how it would be done?

But there isn't any leadership from Heins in this direction. I get that marketing is complex and it's not a good thing to confuse, but if Heins is talking with authority about the tablet going away, surely it would be a good idea for him and his team to set the tone of that discussion with more clarity.

There's another odd dimension to this as well with BlackBerry jumping into bed with iOS and Android, not just with making BBM cross-platform, but by exposing out the upcoming Secure Work Space product to those platforms as well.

If you don't know about Secure Work Space, it's a very interesting product. BlackBerry devices in enterprise settings have always terminated behind the firewall, meaning that a BlackBerry device running against a BES is treated as a private device on the private side of the firewall at all times. Secure Work Space will allow iOS and Android devices to link directly behind the enterprise firewall, too. It's a hugely important, unique product that got about two sentences in the keynote. It should have been the whole keynote.

It's possible to read this "playing nicely with others" tactic as leading into BlackBerry giving up on handsets and just becoming a services company. Is that what's happening? I don't know. I doubt it. But it is a tactic that might, in a de facto sense, stop BlackBerry from needing to making devices.

Listening to Heins talk yesterday, he clearly wants to be an industry leader, positioning BlackBerry to demonstrate to the market their ideas about how mobile can work.

But, if by migrating the unique value in BlackBerry to its competitors means that it has to stop making devices, Heins loses his leadership position entirely; the quadrumvirate of CEOs leading post-PC becomes a triumvirate, leaving just the voices from Microsoft, Apple, and Google.

How about if Heins gets out there and shows his 5-10 years vision ideas in a much less nebulous way? Setting up a research division and inviting experts to get involved might be one idea.

Xerox PARC invented a lot of the ideas around post-PC through their work on ubicomp — maybe such an idea can work for Blackberry, e.g. a "BlackBerry PARC." An organization like that could gain respect and following even if they didn't produce any actual devices.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Smartphones, Tablets

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  • I think the idea...

    I think the idea is not that you plug your phone into the tablet, but rather that your phone wirelessly broadcasts a screen to the tablet (i.e. something along the lines of Miracast) and the tablet feeds touch input back to the phone. That way you are not restricted to physical connectors, and tied down to one particular set of hardware.
    • lenovo already has one

      wireless display, introduced on CES 2013
    • This is called remoting

      So you get a 'dumb' tablet and remote into your phone.
      What are your benefits? The tablet will not get that much cheaper by getting dumber.
      So what will you be gaining?
      • Dumb Screens

        What Heins is suggesting is that you carry a single CPU around with you (which happens to be your phone) and it can connect over wireless to any screen around you (smart monitors or TV). The benefit is that in a world where you have a reasonably complex OS (Android, Windows 8 or IOS for example), you only need to keep your data on a single device and you only need to maintain the OS in one place (installed apps, local data, customization).
        • I think you'd be interested in the Casetop

    • this guy (dsf3g) got it

      From what I've seen Thorsten Heins is like Michael Jackson, he doesn't know how to express himself and afterwards he always clarifies because people got the wrong idea.
      • No, No, NO

        It was Madonna who "expressed herself". C'mon, man. Get it right.
  • very low "cognitive loading."

    Read: reduced functionality. Complex things require complex tools. This means the world he envisions is either very simple or it is relying on centralized computing.
    • They might require complex tools to build

      but they don't necessarily require complex tools to operate. A modern IC engine is pretty complex, but all the user needs to do is turn a single key to get it to run.
  • Alternative view

    Firstly, as above, I don't think anyone would physically dock a device in the world you describe. It would be done over a modified Miracast type scheme, plus would work with TVs and other screens in your home.

    However, I question the whole concept behind what you're suggesting. In a world where the cloud dominates and HTML 5 is king, any web browser would work. In such a world, cheap devices like Chrome Book and simple phones would suffice. You wouldn't need to get all the work of docking various complex devices together.

    In my opinion, either approach could win, or both could co-exist.

    I believe Google is the company that really gets this better than any other. They have one foot in both camps.
  • He also apparently "gets" the Post-PB era.

    As in Post-PLAYBOOK...becuase there STILL was no mention of it getting BB10.

    And no...he DID really mean this..."This was widely reported as being that Heins thought, "tablets would not be important in five years time." What he actually meant by this, and as he now clarified in the Q&A, was that Heins believes in a vision of "modular computing.""

    Way to go kids. Nice way to treat your customers.
  • An example..

    For all it's faults, the Playbook in many ways was ahead of it's time. When used the way it was envisioned to be used, it paired with your BB phone and from there, everything you did communication wise was actually being done through the phone not the tablet. When it worked and I got used to it, it was brilliant. That was why it did not come with it's own email, calender, wasn't supposed to. It uses your phone's.

    Even on the go, it seamlessly got it's internet connection from your phone without it needing any special tethering option from your carrier.

    And if the user left the proximity of the Playbook, his info went with his phone. It wasn't stored on the Playbook nor was it out in the "cloud" so much. It was a proximity link to the tablet so it was quite secure as well.

    It was a combination of the technology not being refined enough and people not understanding the concept that contributed to it's lack of commercial success. The Ipad was an easy, self-contained entity but like the author says,'s own email, calender, and so on.

    I think what Heins is envisioning is that same concept of seamlessly using the phone as the "hub" and whether it's another tablet, a dumb monitor, your car, etc, those items all access the same source. NOT through the cloud so much (as everyone else is promoting) but with more near-field (Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-fi, etc) data connections.

    And when it comes to the "cloud" with it's inherit potential security issues, you no longer have all the branches (tablets, tv's, etc) trying to stay in sync and exposing your data, you only have your one central (and hopefully) secure device that needs to interact with the web.

    Anyway, that's been my take on what I've seen in the past and where I believe Heins is leading BB.
    • "That was why it did not come with it's own email, calender, etc.."

      That's why it wasn't successful. They limited their market to the number of people who own BB devices. You can make the coolest tablet on earth, but I'm not going to break contract and / or go out and spend $500 on a new phone just to use email on it.

      That was a huge fumble on BBs part.
      • An example.. well explained

        As Hanibalmoot implied that those who understood and got the two working (BB and Playbook) it is brilliant.

        Those who did not get it, not only had to pay more but unfortunately missed out.
  • Convergence is a techie fantasy

    "we've been able to do modular computing for 20 years and no one has ever used it to life-changing effect" - if you have to ignore that fact to believe your differing, optimistic viewpoint on convergence, then you might want to reconsider...

    Why is convergence a fantasy? Because NO ONE goes out and buys a full suite of interconnectable devices at once to use forever - one builds their tech-device inventory piecemeal, over time, over the course changing technologies. Individual items break and need to be replaced at different times, and one's resources change over time, further influencing what you can replace them with. The "one computer with lots of i/o peripherals" fantasy doesn't fit with this reality.

    Consider the iPhone 5 - I won't upgrade my 4 because I've spent hundreds of dollars on "iPeripherals" (3 home audio players, 3 cars with the iPhone connectivity, a half-dozen chargers, and an AirLink transmitter) that use the old iPhone connector. If Apple hadn't changed the connector, then I would have upgraded when the i5 came out. But they did, so I didn't, and now I won't until I am FORCED to by circumstances. And I'm sure I'm not the only one - which is why Apple shot themselves in the foot with the i5.

    Anywho... different people want different devices that do different things differently. If it was only about efficiency and simplicity, we'd all be driving the same model car. But we don't. And we won't use just one computer for the same reason.
    Bill Clay
    • It's all in the o/s

      Many of you are right about the recent BB / PB "failure" and the lack of interest in being locked into a single platform for multiple purposes, but that's the "magic" of BB that is being overlooked - it's QNX.

      Read this QNX article from a couple months ago

      The BB / PB "pairing" worked OK, but was clunky - taking it to its logical next step with a QNX architecture it makes a lot more sense.

      Now extend the interoperabilty of QNX-based devices, and the "post-PC" / "post-tablet" concept makes a lot more sense. A portable powerful communication device (your BB) that seamlessly connects and "extends" to your tablet, your car, your TV etc. now becomes a huge shift.

      Can BB execute? Who knows, but if they can't, I hope someone else can.
    • The Casetop is a future-proof platform agnostic device

      It turns your Iphone (or Android, Winphone, Blackberry, etc.) into a small laptop with 11" 720 or 1080p screen, quality full sized keyboard, and 30+ hour battery. It's seeking funding now on kickstarter. Check it out. 10.5 days to go. Spread the word!
  • Ugh, quit saying post-pc

    We are not a post-PC world. We are not a post-PC culture. The PC isn't going away. What is going away is the sale of NEW PC's. People aren't dumping their PC's, it's just that the PC has reached a near-complete 100% saturation of the market -- everyone who wants one has one, and what can you really do with two?

    The same thing will happen with the toys. The reason they keep going despite getting close to saturation is that the ones people are buying now suck compared to the ones that will be rolling out in a few years, and the same can't really be said of personal computers. But it will happen, and soon. Will they call it a post-iDevice world then?
    Jacob VanWagoner
    • Post PC simply means that people don't have to buy

      a full PC anymore to get the functionality they want. To use the tired old car analogy, prior to the iPad, you had a to buy a utility vehicle, even if what you really wanted was a little sportscar to tool around town, because the only thing being manufactured were utility vehicles.

      In the post utility vehicle era, you can now buy a sportscar OR a utility vehicle or both, depending on your wants/needs.

      It's really no more complicated than that.
  • We really are not post PC!

    The tablet market is approaching saturation. Once that market is saturated tablet sales will decline, possibly showing worse sales than PC's. When the economy improves combined with lower tablet sales PC sales will improve. I doubt PC sales will rebound to previous levels since many people only need browsing and email. Tablets can fulfill these duties. But, if you need to do real work a PC is the best solution. Most tablets currently have the horsepower of an 8 or 10 year old PC. They simply can't do serious work. Argue all you want, but a tablet cannot edit video, effectively Photoshop an image and many other tasks. Tablets currently don't multitask well, if at all. Tablets replacing PC's will be a pipe dream for at least another 10 years.