RIM's dual challenge: Build quality smartphones while boosting management software

BlackBerry 10 devices, delayed until 2013, will build on Mobile Fusion for managing devices, RIM exec says

BlackBerry 10 smartphones, delayed until early 2013, will have the "best browsers in the industry" and will come in touchscreen-only models as well as those with traditional physical keyboards, a Research in Motion executive said Thursday.

RIM's BlackBerry 10 devices, announced in May, will have an overall focus on communications that "drives efficient communications to a new level," said Peter Devenyi, senior vice president of enterprise software at RIM.

"We must build devices that appeal to everybody -- workers and consumers. That's what BlackBerry 10 is about, to be the most appealing smartphone that also works effectively and seamlessly in a person's work life," Devenyi said in a telephone interview.

RIM recognizes how important its smartphones and its BlackBerry Enterprise Server software are to its overall business, Devenyi said. That's become especially true as workers who make up the core of BlackBerry's customer base increasingly want to use smartphones and tablets that run Apple' iOS or Google's Android operating systems for workplace activities.

"There's always going to be lots of corporate [purchased] devices, but BYOD devices are outpacing corporate," he said. Research firm IDC put BlackBerry at 6% of the global market in the first quarter, half of its share in the first quarter of 2011, a decline that many blame on weaknesses in features in the BlackBerry, including its browser and touchscreen.

Devenyi said the Webkit browser inside BlackBerry 7 devices is a "tremendous browser," but said BlackBerry 10 will take it to a "whole new level."

Just days after reports surfaced that the first BlackBerry 10 smartphones will be touchscreen devices and won't have the customary physical keyboard loved by many BlackBerry users, Devenyi sought to clarify: "We're not abandoning the physical keyboard. We'll be delivering in 2013 both touch and physical keyboards."

The past few months have been difficult for RIM, Deveyni acknowledged. Last week, RIM disappointed investors with negative earnings, layoffs and news that BlackBerry 10 software and devices would be delayed into 2013.

Still, RIM CEO Thorsten Heins defended RIM on Tuesday, telling a Canadian radio audience that RIM is not in a "death spiral" even though its stock fell 19% last Friday on the earnings news. Heins' comments might have helped, since the RIM stock price bumped up 4.2% to $7.66 at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday from its close on Tuesday for the July 4 holiday.

"The transition we're going through is tough, as Thorsten has stated, but we've never seen a company as committed to going through transition as what we see here at RIM," Devenyi said. "It's nice to do [the transition] with $2.2 billion of cash and no debt and a growing customer base which remains number one in many countries." He said there are currently 78 million BlackBerry devices and 250,000 BES servers in use globally.

RIM remains committed to BlackBerry 10, but Devenyi admitted that a variety of other strategies for growth are being investigated. "A number of strategic opportunities are being looked into, and we will continue to do that, and yet our firm commitment is to drive forward with our next generation mobile computing platform, the nucleus of which is BlackBerry 10," he said.

He did clarify, however, that "we don't believe it's in RIM's best interest or that of the shareholders to be dependent on a third party OS." Some analysts have speculated that RIM might want to use the Windows Phone or Android OS on future BlackBerry smartphones.

Devenyi did not comment on other strategic options that have been raised, including the possible licensing of the BlackBerry OS to other smartphone manufacturers or licensing or selling the RIM network operations center and network to other smartphone makers to use to secure their smartphones.

Devenyi arrived at RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, in 2005 and has major responsibility for research and development for RIM's enterprise software portfolio, including BES and other capabilities. He conceded that RIM could better publicize to its enterprise customers some of those capabilities, such as BlackBerry Mobile Fusion and BlackBerry Balance.

Blackberry Mobile Fusion, device management software that RIM introduced last November, was expanded in April to help IT shops provide the security used in BlackBerry devices to iOS and Android tablets and smartphones, Devenyi said.

RIM always offered 256-bit encryption for BlackBerry devices. With Mobile Fusion, the difference is that the encrypted data runs over Microsoft ActiveSync management software, and not over RIM's proprietary mobile device management software, Devenyi explained.

Also, the security over ActiveSync is optional to IT shops. "Before, IT had to connect to BES, so this enables a whole array of [Bring your own] devices," he explained. "We had to make sure we opened up the opportunity to BYOD to connect devices of any type to corporate data with any level of security constraints -- whether this includes Fusion or is less strict and less secure."

Devenyi said Fusion has attracted a "tremendous amount of interest ... a number of companies are actively using it" and giving RIM feedback on ways to improve Fusion to "make sure it's the leading mobile device management solution out there."

One future direction for security on BlackBerry devices will be how RIM secures data on consumer devices, so that corporate data is separated from personal data. RIM calls its approach "seamless partitioning" with the name BlackBerry Balance, which will appear in BlackBerry 10.

The principal value of Balance is that users won't be allowed to do certain things with corporate data when using the personal capabilities inside a smartphone or tablet.

"If I have got an enterprise app on my smartphone, IT can wipe everything the enterprise knows about away ... The data's secured and could never be transmitted out on the non-enterprise side. That means you could never cut and paste enterprise email into non-enterprise email, for example," Devenyi explained.

Also, after listening to customers, RIM is planning to bring Mobile Fusion capabilities to the cloud, so that corporate customers can manage a variety of smartphone and tablet OSes without the need for servers on their premises, Devenyi said.

"Mobile Fusion is a direct realization that there will be heterogeneous devices that need to be managed. We are committed to extending it to more devices and to make it the best. Our customers are relying on that. On top of that, we must build devices that appeal to everybody ... and that's what BlackBerry 10 is about."

RIM is holding its annual shareholders meeting on July 10. It will be Webcast.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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