Five key questions for BlackBerry's chief of BBM for Business

"Fortunately, we’re not starting with scratch with BBM. The challenge is how do you build on top of that and deliver more useful features."
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO---Aside from the physical keyboard, BlackBerry Messenger is typically cited as the favorite feature (if not saving grace) for the once-dominant phone maker.

As the Canadian company regroups once again, newly-appointed CEO John Chen, who took the helm last fall amid the ouster of Thorsten Heins, appears keen on focusing simply on BlackBerry's known strengths.

That includes trimming features, products, and even celebrity endorsements targeted toward consumers.

Such a strategy also calls for leaning on the aforementioned business-friendly features in order to double down on rolling out more efficient and secure solutions aimed at public and private sector employees.

I recently sat down with Thad White, director of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) for Business, asking five key questions about how BBM is serving business and government clientele, and how it stacks up against a crowded market of mobile messaging services.

In a memo Chen wrote for CNBC last December, he said BlackBerry would be refocusing its efforts around three areas (enterprise, BBM, and the QNX mobile operating system).

Where does BBM stand at the moment?

BlackBerry Messenger used to be limited to just BlackBerry devices. Now it’s cross-platform, including iOS, Android, and we’ve announced Windows Phone.

What we announced at Mobile World Congress a few weeks ago was a new suite of services layered on the existing BBM platform, not a new app starting from scratch. This is the same one that has 85 million monthly active users. We’re calling it the eBBM (Enterprise BBM) suite.

The first product is BBM Protected, the most secure mobile messaging service available, but also the most convenient from the enterprise perspective.

How does BBM play into BlackBerry’s mobile device management (MDM) and other mobile enterprise plans?

[BBM Protected and MDM] will be an additional feature. We have announced we will charge extra for BBM Protected, but it’s the same admin interface that companies are already used to.

Enterprise IT managers want security both at rest and in transit. At BBM, we’re focused on both of those.

On at rest, we focus on a device security model where the root of trust starts with the hardware and goes up to the OS and the applications. BlackBerry is known for this. We have a heritage of security.

"BlackBerry is known for this. We have a heritage of security."

In transit, we are applying a level of end-to-end encryption that is unmatched in the industry. That means once a message is encrypted on the sender’s device, it is never decrypted until it reaches the recipient’s device. Unlike some other models such as on-premise based messaging solutions, this is encrypted end-to-end on a cloud service.

That also means BlackBerry is not a participant in the exchange of keys, and BlackBerry can’t see the messages. So even if BlackBerry’s architecture was compromised, the information would be secure. That’s important for customers in government, for example, who care a lot about security.

The second big value to the enterprise is manageability. For companies that are regulated, like financial companies, we allow logging of the messages. They can basically retrieve all the messages and back them up to our BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES).

The third benefit to the enterprise is that this is all turnkey — no new software, hardware or networking. It’s a cloud service provided by BlackBerry enabled by BES.

In regard to enterprise, how does consumerization change the game for BBM?

In the enterprise world, we see a trend around consumerization of IT. BYO-“X.” Bring your own device, bring your own service, whatever. You see consumers bringing in their own messaging solutions to the enterprise, whether its SMS, BBM, or Whatsapp.

With any enterprise solution, there are two important constituencies to address: one being the end user and one being the enterprise.

From the user’s perspective, what we’ve seen is employees bringing their own messaging services in. Users want a seamless experience between personal and work lives.

I usually make the comparison to email. We all use corporate email, which you can securely store on a corporate laptop, etc.

But you can also use that email account to message friends or family, internally or externally. BBM Protected is based on that same premise. We want to give you that one application that can function inside and outside the organization.

BlackBerry has been going through a self-evaluation period lately. What do you think gives BBM its staying power, especially in the midst of so many other instant chat methods, both for business and personal use?

BBM, because it is a cross-platform service, we don’t see it tied to the device. We also think it is very important to support iOS and Android, both from the BBM side as well as the BES side.

Fortunately, we’re not starting with scratch with BBM. The challenge is how do you build on top of that and deliver more useful features.

The consumer-focused services like SMS, or ones making headlines, like the WhatsApp acquisition. The problem there is they don’t give enterprises the security and manageability they want to protect corporate data.

Then there’s the business-focused messengers that try to create messaging just within the organization, like Cotap and Anchor. They’ve created apps that are available to the end user but limit you to connecting with other people with the same corporate email address as you. You’re automatically grouped with people with that email address and can’t communicate with anyone outside of that. It doesn’t have the control that BBM and BBM Protected offers with external and internal use.

Then there are on-premise messaging services, like those from Cisco and Microsoft, for example. They suffer from the same issue of being limited to internal communication, but they’re also very complicated and expensive, requiring the installation of new servers and software that need to be set up by IT.

We think the value proposition for BBM and BBM Protected is the most secure and most convenient.

What’s in the pipeline for BBM at the moment?

We see users collaborating everyday, using BBM within companies — not only messaging each other but within groups, multi-person chat. BBM Voice, Voice, and Screen Sharing for presentations too.

Today, that is a one-to-one service. One can imagine that someday that could go multi-party. There are other ways we can make BBM a better collaboration service.

Fortunately, we’re not starting with scratch with BBM. The challenge is how do you build on top of that and deliver more useful features. We want to target users and IT, and we want to balance that.

Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image via LinkedIn/BlackBerry

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