BlackBerry's bounce-back plan: Turning old rivals into new allies

BlackBerry's new approach means focusing on security, productivity, and playing nicely with the other smartphone makers.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

A customer sitting through a sales presentation from BlackBerry might find something unexpected on the slides: iOS, Android, and Windows Phone logos alongside the BlackBerry brand.

In the ultracompetitive smartphone world, BlackBerry is trying to change customer perceptions of the brand. It wants to move away from people seeing the company as synonymous with phones with physical Qwerty keyboards and towards one that provides secure communication and productivity apps for business — regardless of the brand of phone they use.

John Sims, BlackBerry's head of enterprise, said it's a work in progress to reposition the BlackBerry brand from one that is focused entirely on its own handsets to one that works with smartphones from its rivals — hence those unexpected logos. "Every slide we present to customers has the four logos of the different platforms on it," he told ZDNet.

Likewise the company is playing down the BlackBerry in 'BlackBerry Enterprise Server' and refering simply to BES in case the branding puts off potential customers that might use a different fruit-branded device.

What's behind the rethink? BlackBerry was once the unrivaled smartphone leader, but failed to cope with the rise of first the iPhone and then the array of cheaper Android devices that followed it into the market. According to IDC, BlackBerry accounted for just 0.5 percent of smartphone shipments in the second quarter of this year (1.5 million handsets), down from 2.8 percent last year (6.7 million phones). That puts it in fourth place behind Windows Phone in what is really a two-horse smartphone race led by Apple's iPhone and Android devices.

Still, Sims said that while a year ago the question most asked of BlackBerry was, 'Are you guys still going to be around?', now the question has switched to, 'What are you doing to grow the company from here?'.

As the company looks to put its business on a surer footing, it is moving away from its old certainties, which means it is willing to act in a less monolithic way and take a few chances. For example, the recent BlackBerry Passport, a huge square-screened device with a physical keyboard, certainly didn't follow the crowd.

BlackBerry is now made up of four different businesses: one focusing on the handsets business (the new BlackBerry Classic will be launched on December 17); another looking after the BBM messaging system; BlackBerry Technology Services, which is responsible for the QNX microkernel used in cars and medical devices; and the enterprise business.

Sims said each of these groups will make their own decisions, even ones that are "not in the best interests of one of the other businesses".

He gave the example that earlier this year the BlackBerry devices business decided to open up the APIs on the BlackBerry 10 devices so that other mobile device management (MDM) companies could manage BlackBerry devices. "If I was looking at it purely from a BES perspective, we would never have made that decision, but it was important for the devices business to be able to further the acceptance of BlackBerry devices in the enterprise to be as open as possible."

In a similar way, Sims said the BlackBerry enterprise business had made a deal to help secure Samsung smartphones in the enterprise, even though when it comes to handset sales the two companies are rivals.

All of this might seem like a radical departure but it shows BlackBerry is facing up to the changed reality of the smartphone market. Sims says acquisitions such as Secusmart, which uses encryption to secure voice calls, and Movirtu with its 'virtual SIM' technology can give it the edge with customers who worry about security or who are struggling to manage the BYOD wave.

Sims said that while the device business is the most important in terms of revenue, the enterprise software and services business is the bit it wants to grow fastest - the company wants to double revenue here to $500m. There's also a lot better margin in software and services, he says: "No one in the industry makes significant money on devices except for Apple."

But making money in MDM is tough, which means BlackBerry is aiming at services on top of that — like the BBM Meetings videoconferencing service it recently showed off.

"Device management is just a commodity so we don't look to make a lot of money from basic device management. It's important to have it but really it's not about managing the devices. It's really about managing the data, the applications, the things people are doing on the devices — that's where the secret sauce is, that's where we are focused," Sims said.

The MDM market that BlackBerry is trying to crack is just as tough as the smartphone market it has found so hard. Sims described loyal BlackBerry customers as "a little like the lost platoon in the army - they've been left on the front lines and they're running out of ammunition".

The question is whether BlackBerry's new strategy will give them the supplies they need.

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