BlackBerry's new chief executive, John Chen, has a simple vision for winning back market share in the financial, healthcare and government markets: providing a hyper-secure environment for mobile devices.
But will his vision of a secure ecosystem for mobile devices resonate with large bank clients, many of which are starting to migrate away from BlackBerry or are thinking about it? Citigroup, Bank of America and Credit Suisse have all publicly spoken of shifting from issuing BlackBerrys to employees to letting staffers use their own devices.
Analyst firm Gartner actually warned clients still using BlackBerry to "decide on a new course of action" in a September report, citing BlackBerry's mounting financial woes stemming from its eroding market share.
Chen was brought in to fix the beleaguered mobile device maker in November, having previously engineered a turnaround at database manufacturer Sybase. When Chen joined Sybase in 1998, the company had been losing money for four years following an overall downturn in the economy and problems in its Japanese division. Chen curtailed operations in areas in which Sybase is unprofitable and broke the company down into smaller, more manageable chunks.
In an interview with American Banker Friday, Chen outlined a short-term plan for the Waterloo, Ontario, mobile device company that is laser-focused on security. Secure smartphones; the BlackBerry Enterprise Server 12, which is scheduled to debut in November and will manage iPhone, Android, Windows and old and new BlackBerry devices; and secure enterprise messaging based on BlackBerry Messenger, an instant messaging system for BlackBerry devices are the cornerstones. In coming releases, the company will connect handsets, server and messaging software, conceivably creating an airtight infrastructure for mobile communications.
Chen points out that awareness of security and identity management rises all the time in the financial industry. He says BlackBerry has an advantage over competitors like Good Technology, AirWatch, and MobileIron because of the time-proven, patented security components of its technology.
"The Federal Reserve Bank and OCC put cybersecurity as one of the top risk factors for all financial institutions in the U.S." he says. "This plays to the strength of BlackBerry. Because of our network operating center and all our patents, and because of the way we encrypt messages, the way we build our handset and server, we have the only end-to-end encryption."
Observers say the company, whose BlackBerry Enterprise Server is still in use at many banks for managing employees' mobile devices, has a chance.
"BlackBerry technology has a strong foothold in the [financial services] market," notes Jacob Jegher, research director at Celent. "BlackBerry Enterprise Server has been the de facto standard for years in terms of managing security and policies for corporate-issued BlackBerry mobile devices."
Enabling its server software to manage all devices, not just BlackBerry phones, is an important move for the company.
"If BlackBerry is to survive in this market, this is what they need to focus on," Jegher says. "Their only move at this point to stay relevant in their core market is to say 'stay with us and let us manage all your devices, we can support everything.'"
One challenge is making the server work with diverse devices, Jegher points out. For instance, Android devices are more open and harder to manage in a centralized way. "Once you open to other devices and operating systems, it's almost a Pandora's box," he says.
"I like this idea a lot for [BlackBerry]," Jegher says. "Is it too little, too late? That's the big question. There are a lot of competitors."
James Gordon, chief technology officer at Needham Bank in Massachusetts, also wonders about the "too little, too late" question.
"Blackberry has to create something markedly different and new," Gordon says. "They were innovators of push email. Before that, there was no such thing as a wireless email connection. They innovated, they rightfully earned their spot at the top of the market, they held that until 2008, but they lost that crown as soon as the iPhone came out in 2007." Apple changed the game by positioning smartphones as more than just a device for email, but a whole mobile operating system.
"In order to get ahead, you can't just feature match, that will not get you ahead of the game," he says.
Needham Bank two years ago began using MobileIron, which provides device management with one dashboard to manage apps across all employee devices, Gordon says. Needham Bank employees are allowed to use whatever devices they want; some employees have been issued iPhones and iPads.
"I'm glad BlackBerry finally woke up, but it's a stronger market now with MobileIron, AirWatch, Good Technology, and BlackBerry," Gordon says. "I welcome BlackBerry to that space, but they will have to prove themselves."
At the mention of such competitors, Chen counters, "You're comparing the NFL with Division 3."
Google is also rumored to be considering launching its own device management software.
Chen acknowledges that BlackBerry has lost share in the device management market. One reason is when the trend toward bring-your-own-device came, the company did not adjust its server right away so it could be used to manage all the different devices employees were bringing in.
"The company has caught up to the fact that we need to be able to manage not only a BlackBerry device but Android, iPhone and Windows handsets," he says.
He adds that BlackBerry still counts many of the biggest financial services firms as its customers.
"I'm very comfortable with the fact that we have lot of good technologists, know-how, patents, I'm quite encouraged about what we can get done," Chen says.
BlackBerry Enterprise Server 12, like the current version 10, will help corporate and government users manage policies, rules and restrictions on smartphones used by their employees.
The Enterprise Server runs through BlackBerry's Network Operations Center, which according to Chen is the most secure infrastructure available. "It's firewall protected, everything is encrypted in and out, with authenticated devices," he says.
Chen refers to BlackBerry Messenger as a secure intranet portal. "That's where we put a lot of effort into making sure the outside world doesn't crack into the inside world," he says. BlackBerry Messenger has 85 million active users and 125 million registered users.
"The short-term, immediate plan is to get all these anchor pieces connected together in a secure, highly productive, collaborative way," Chen says.
Later, the company will work on identity management systems to provide extra
authentication for employees as they are logging in. There will be a control center to monitor who is accessing what.
Farther down the road are plans for a connected, secure ecosystem for the Internet of things. Internet of things refers to the not-too-distant day when everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data. Some cars and wireless sensors already have such connectivity (and some already use BlackBerry's QNX kernel). This idea is that someday, everything from your refrigerator to your toaster to items in a grocery aisle will be streaming information to your mobile device.