Changing the game

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | Updated: Apr 22 2014, 10:40am hrs
Two years ago, while working for a tech magazine, I wrote a piece suggesting three options for BlackBerry, which was then at the top of a hill but looking down. I said the best option would be for BlackBerry to become a software company. But the suggestion was too speculative for the story to be published anywhere. A couple of weeks back, BlackBerry India MD Sunil Lalvani said something that, for me, was like poetic justicethe Canadian smartphone maker had earned 63% of its revenues in Q4-2013 from software.

The fortunes of what was once the top smartphone maker have been due for a turnaround some time now. The companys downfall in many ways has been accentuated by the not-so-impressive show of its latest BB10 devices on which they were banking a bit too much. The operating system is one of the best available for smartphones, but its problem is the lack of the kind of apps that people want to have on their phones. Numbers is not the issue here, but the absence of the most downloaded apps from the other operating systems is.

It is ironical that apps should be the problem area for a company that has excelled in smartphone apps for so long. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is still one of the best messaging platforms out there. So much so that opening up its best app has only worked to BlackBerrys advantage. It seems the success of BBM on other platforms has given Waterloo enough confidence to take its services to other platforms. So its enterprise software now lets people access BlackBerrys secure and encrypted service even on Android and iOS devices. Any device can now be a BlackBerry device and this enterprise service will be a compartment separated from the rest of the device. CTOs seem to be lapping up the feature, which finally lets them secure the smart devices that are preferred by their employees and increasingly being paid for by them.

We have added 30,000 BES 10 servers in the year since its launch and we have BES 12 on the anvil, says Lalvani, highlighting that they are certainly not out. But there are many players trying to secure Android and iOS for large enterprises, among them Samsung which is pushing its Knox that tries to do the same thing as BlackBerry.

According to Gartner, the spend on enterprise software will total $320 billion in 2014, a 6.9% increase from 2013. This is the market that BlackBerry, Samsung and others are after. Mobile device management will be one of the growth sectors as the endpoints in mobile are growing like never before. So while we will continue to have a devices range, we will also provide the software solutions to secure those devices, Lalvani explains. To this effect, BlackBerry is also working on an enterprise BBM suite that offers regulated industries the most secure and reliable real-time mobile messaging.

While BlackBerry might now be making more money from its services, the company has not yet said goodbye to its handset business. The company has shifted ownership of production to Foxconn, and will focus on the operating system, R&D and innovation. The economies of scale the worlds largest electronics contract manufacturer will bring to the table should help BlackBerry bring in cheaper devices that might let it hold on to its bastions in India and Indonesia. There is also a shift back to its USP, the QWERTY keyboard, and the next flagship will most certainly be a classic phone. But this would well be its last hardware gamble, as CEO John Chen has said he is not averse to pulling out of handsets that dont start making a profit.

Others seem to be taking a cue from BlackBerry. Last week, Samsung also opened its messaging software ChatON to other platforms. The plan is to make ChatON popular across devices and operating systems. A multi-platform solution is to the benefit of the end-user. But we realised that only Samsung can drive that kind of scale, says Tarun Malik, director of Samsungs Media Solutions Centre (South West Asia). But I just get the feeling that a successful app might stand you in good stead when the hardware side is not doing all that well.