Three years ago, Blackberry was on the verge of collapse when the CEO decided to transform the business into a software company. Fast-forward to the present, and the data security that was previously one of the biggest assets in Blackberry phones is now finding its way into the autonomous vehicle sector.
BlackBerry’s global president of Enterprise Sales, Carl Wiese, recently brought a well-practised monologue with him to Australia. Without drawing breath, he starts the interview with it.
“The management team came in three years ago with a clear direction that we were going to make this a software company, take the DNA and some of the assets that we had around software which we knew were best-in-class, and make that run an enterprise software company.
“We spent about a billion dollars on acquisitions to create what we believe is the broadest and deepest mobile platform in the world.
“Over the last four quarters, 81% of our business is about software. The last quarter, over 90% was.
“Eight quarters in a row of profitability. We sit on $US2.5 billion in cash and very little debt. So from a financial perspective, the turnaround’s complete.”
We’re just running parts of it here, but you can read pretty much the identical Wiese spiel word-for-word in other media outlets he speaks to, as well as in coverage of his appearance at the Sydney leg of the BlackBerry Secure World Tour.
It’s no criticism of Wiese and his team. This is the big push, and it needs to be word-perfect. Three years ago, BlackBerry was on the brink of collapse.
The flip driven by CEO John Chen from hardware to software, Wiese says, “is now complete”.
And there’s no jumping in for questions right now. Wiese is just getting warmed up.
“One thing that gets overlooked is we had a very broad patent portfolio. We have over 30,000 patents and things that people didn’t even realise that we had at our disposal.
“The analysts are now starting to take notice, they now acknowledge we’re in the upper right quadrant for any of those reports, a long way away from where we were a couple of years ago.
“Nine of the top 10 banks are our customers. Nine of the top 10 law firms are our customers.”
“We’ve got 60 million cars running BlackBerry software inside them.”
Protecting you from yourself
Suddenly, everything else Wiese has rolled out is just noise. Because what’s the biggest news story in tech this year?
Which former hardware company has been the byword for data security for decades?
And as the next decade rolls on, who’s going to be behind the wheel of more and more cars?
It will be data, and when you and your family are surrounded by driverless cars belting out of Sydney for a weekend mini-break, you’ll want to know the information guiding those cars are iron-clad.
It turns out Wiese’s “60 million” figure was a lapse in concentration. It’s been a long tour.
That figure was from three years ago. The actual number with BlackBerry QNX technology in their advanced driver assistance systems, digital instrument clusters, connectivity modules, hands free and infotainment systems is now at more than 120 million.
Among the takers are BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Maserati, Mercedes Benz, Porsche and Audi.
Cars are not metal machines any more. The vast majority of moving components in a modern vehicle move because one of many computers has told them to move. They are driven by software, and software needs a reliable platform to operate on.
So when you consider all that you’re risking by increasingly opening up so many potential failure points in your life on the road, you should think about who’s responsible for that. That means that along with leather trim, reversing cameras and voice controls, there are good reasons to think that manufacturers should soon consider offering “BlackBerry Secure” as a selling point, right?
Wiese, surprisingly, sounds like he hasn’t considered it.
“Today for the first time, we’re actually seeing people trade cars because of the technology,” he says. “The Bluetooth’s better, the nav system’s better, whatever.
“They would never have done that five, 10 years ago.
“But if you talk about the safe certification systems, they’ll get to that. I think you’re onto something there, but I think that’s probably 2022, 2023.”
Byton has. The Chinese startup is rapidly closing in on rolling out an initial production run of 150,000 electric cars a year, in partnership with Aurora, an autonomous driving company founded by the former head of Google’s self-driving cars program and under the gaze of former BMW executive Carsten Breitfeld.
Its SUV, which only debuted at this year’s CES show in January, is on track for sales next year and will reportedly cost about 40% less than a Tesla Model X. It’s also very pretty:
Buy a Byton next year and you’re trusting software with your face ID and cameras showing you what’s going on behind you instead of side mirrors. Your kid will beg you to buy one just for the world’s most bonkers in-car touch console:
And because it’s going to be connected in every way you can imagine, and have all the systems in place to go fully autonomous when the world is ready for it, Byton chose BlackBerry “because of its ability to partition and isolate safety-critical systems from non-safety critical system”, end-to-end. BlackBerry QNX watches over the autonomous technology, while an assistant called BlackBerry Jarvis continuously scans the binary code to find flaws.
It’s not just physical safety we’re talking about, either. There are millions of webpages detailing all the things you should know about your car.
But what about all the things your new car knows about you? Potentially:
- Where you are and where you go every Tuesday afternoon
- How long before you’ll be back at your house
- What music you like to listen to
- Who’s in the car with you
- What shops and fuel franchises you like to visit
- Where your friends and family live
- What sports your kids play and what school they go to
- Whether you might be pregnant
- And all the information you give to Byton’s car-sized “Shared Experience Display”.
Every time you press a button, make a turn, tap the touchscreen and open the door adds another data point for a system somewhere else in the world to flesh out your profile a little bit more.
There’s nothing sneaky about it at all. In fact, they’re selling points, the cool little features consumers are demanding which make their new car more connected than their neighbour’s new car.
What’s she got under the CPU cover?
Wiese says what most people don’t realise is the average car – i.e. not a Tesla – already has 100 million lines of software. That’s more than the space shuttle ever had.
How many different sources does that software come from? Even high-end companies such as Mercedes and BMW don’t have the team to write all of it. It’s assembled from thousands of different sources.
How many companies are you relying on to get that right?
The ideal is one. And BlackBerry offers Jarvis as the solution.
It watches those 100 million lines constantly and will let operators know in real-time such things as whether that software has been updated, how much open source is in there, and where it’s crumbling, or about to crumble.
BlackBerry’s first target is automobiles, but there’s reason it couldn’t be implemented in aeroplanes, defence systems and trains.
“It’s a problem automotive manufacturers understand,” Wiese says. “They’re scared.”
But all those openings in cars are the driving the same cool little selling points we’re demanding everywhere, in fact. In our homes, at work, in our delivery services.
If you want to know how much BlackBerry isn’t a phone maker any more, here’s how it describes itself at the foot of every PR release these days:
BlackBerry is an enterprise software and services company focused on securing and managing IoT endpoints.
It doesn’t like the term IoT though. BlackBerry prefers to call its version “EoT” – the Enterprise of Things. A platform “comprised of its enterprise communication and collaboration software and safety-certified embedded solutions”.
At its security conferences in recent years, BlackBerry’s team has hacked into a tea kettle within 15 minutes, and a drug infusion pump to show what kind of holes connected devices open up in our daily lives.
But the best real-world example came in April when hackers accessed a casino’s high-roller database using a thermostat in a fishtank in the lobby to get access to the casino’s network.
“People are starting to understand now why we really need (that security) there,” Wiese says.
He’d “like to think” that kind of attack could have been stopped with some end-to-end device management watching what data’s coming and what’s going. But Wiese admits his job is getting harder every day.
“When you know your mobile device is the least secure device you have in your enterprise, have you done everything you can to lock it down? I’d say you haven’t,” he says.
“The bad guys are getting more sophisticated. It’s no longer kids in basements, it’s an industry now.
“It’s this notion of consumerisation of the enterprise. An IoT-enabled wifi refrigerator? That’s the last thing I need, but it happens. I don’t want a smart TV, but try to buy a non-smart TV.
“It comes with the home and someone just brings it to the enterprise, and it’s no different with waiting for BYOD (to be secure) in your workplace but the CIO says ‘no, we’re just bringing it in anyway’.”
The most scary thing for Wiese is how Even if the device is secure, the first thing anyone does with it is download apps for it, without knowing if those apps are secure. Then the problems is compounded by collaboration – giving other people access to it – email, instant messaging, online workspaces.
And then there’s autonomous drive systems.
“That’s complex, and can it be hacked?” Wiese says. “Absolutely. We know for a fact that it’s happened multiple times.”
“And we all know we’re in a race for autonomous drive vehicles.”
Out of a jam, on a roll
Last month, the good news kept coming for BlackBerry.
On the same day the Byton partnership was announced, British smartphone and consumer electronics maker Bullitt Group, which provides the kind of robust communications systems Caterpillar and Land Rover use in construction sites across the world, will now be certifying their devices “BlackBerry Secure”.
Bullitt’s chief product officer, James Shannon, said the rising threat of hacks in mobile and IoT devices made finding a partner that could “provide a level of security that will give our customers peace of mind” more important than ever.
And two days later, Samsung recommitted in a “multi-year strategic relationship” to use BlackBerry’s Universal Endpoint Managment platform across its connected devices.
“Never before have we had the chance to embed our robust and secure software platforms in as many game-changing products,” John Wall, SVP and GM of BlackBerry QNX, said after the Byton announcement last week.
A Macquarie analyst in May last year flagged automotives as a huge pivot point for BlackBerry, and set a 12-month target of $US11.80 up from $US10.10 at the time. Twelve months later, he was close enough to the money, as BlackBerry nudged $US11.80.
The same analyst said growth in its auto divisions had the potential to quadruple BlackBerry’s stock price in three years to US$45.
That’s still a far cry from pre-iPhone 2008 when it was top of the heap and commanding US$132. But every day, the number of things that are going to be connected is growing.
The last time Wiese checked, “it was going to be 40 or 50 billion, by 2022”.
Wiese acknowledges a large chunk of them won’t need to be managed, but there’s more than enough that will need to be managed – securely – for BlackBerry to build a second coming on.
“It’s all those things – mobiles, tablets, smartwatches – but there’s also a collection of digital assets that going to really drive this notion of Enterprise of Things.
So when you’re buying your next car, do you buy the brand that you love, or the brand that is “BlackBerry Secure”? Wiese is doing all he can to make sure it’s the latter.
“We’d love to have the capability to have that branding and I’m not so sure that at some point we won’t get that capability.”