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BlackBerry Enterprise chief: Yes, we did leave users behind

Network intelligence - our secret weapon

Interview BlackBerry's previous management left its users behind and underused a vital asset, its enterprise chief told El Reg in a wide-ranging interview.

John Sims is part of the rescue team brought in a year ago, when the Canadian giant was at rock bottom – and was seemingly on the wrong end of every trend in the business.

The company formerly known as RIM had flunked its transition to modern phones and server software (in the shape of BB10 and BES10, respectively). In the opinion of almost every pundit and analyst, the company should have flogged off its assets and carried on as a much smaller software company, in the hope an acquirer would take pity on it and buy it.

It needed to get shot of the handsets business because it could never build a consumer ecosystem around its new BB10 platform. It also needed to get shot of its global network, because nobody wanted proprietary secure mobile email any more, and consumers wouldn't pay a premium for a BlackBerry SIM.

All this would turn a company with almost $20bn annual revenue (in 2011) into one with around $200m revenue a year.

These people giving the advice weren't idiots; it looked entirely rational at the time. But the new turnaround team inside BlackBerry, headed by John Chen and which included Sims (a former Tandem and SAP veteran), ignored it. In the post-Snowden, post-Sony era, security doesn't look like an expensive luxury any more. The internet alone isn't good enough.

So far from being a "liability", BlackBerry's global network – generally referred to inside and outside the company, somewhat misleadingly, as its NOC (Network Operating Centre) – underpins a new range of value-added services. Take BlackBerry's new 2FA or voice conferencing, which wipes the floor with the competition in terms of ease of use – and this is largely because the NOC network layer is adding some intelligence.

BlackBerry continued to invest in the NOC, in BES and in BB10 – the smartphone OS even BlackBerry users didn't seem to want. It's too early to say if these bets are paying off yet, but BlackBerry again looks coherent and well run – and it hasn't looked like that in years.

One of the most interesting decisions was to value the private network positively. The NOC was originally created to service BlackBerry's push email proxy, but it's a global network which has reach into every mobile operator in the world – and Sims told us it would be foolish not to exploit this.

"It represents an asset that very few, if any, companies have. None of the people we get mentioned as being in competition with have a NOC infrastructure, and [they] couldn’t build it. We probably couldn’t if we started today," he says.

"The VPN authentication is just an example of the intelligence that's in the network. We're using the PK ability that's buried in the NOC to provide 2FA. That's just the beginning," he continued. "Over the past three years it’s had substantial investment - we've spent an awful lot of money on the infrastructure. Inside it has the latest big data and analytics capabilities. It was obvious to me and to John Chen that this is an asset we have to do more with."

With a BlackBerry server inside most mobile operators, it made sense to leverage the relationship to flog new services. But Sims said the relationship with carriers had been neglected. With traditional consumer BlackBerrys, operators provisioned a special kind of SIM for the user, charging them a premium.

The customer was happy because in the pre-smartphone era, mobile data was an expensive add-on. The BlackBerry service meant no sticker shock, even when roaming abroad. The operator was happy, because it took a cut, and BlackBerry was happy, as business grew. Yet the relationship had to be restarted so the services could be wholesaled.

"A year ago BlackBerry had lost some of its mindshare with operators. We’ve worked hard this year to win that back. Part of it is devices they think they can sell - but also software they think can sell. Operators are transitioning themselves. The way they make money has evolved quite rapidly to data-driven revenue models. They need to look at doing things with enterprises that drive revenue.

"One of the reasons operators like our enterprise strategy is that all of our products are available to sell on an operator basis. We have connectivity into all those operators - right into the provisioning systems - so we can put things on the bill. Our portfolio has allowed us to significantly improve our relationships with operators around the world."

It isn't true of all operators, Sims admits.

"It’s widely written that in the US we're not on the best of terms with T-Mobile. There’s no animosity, it's just that we just don’t align very well. T-Mobile in the USA is focussed on consumer prepaid users. But in Germany T-Mobile, Deutsche Telekon, is very focussed on the enterprise. That aligns really well," he said.

The channel strategy has also been revamped.

"Before, we focussed on carriers but not too much on distribution. And not at all on online. As we’ve reconstructed, we’ve put emphasis on all these things."

Which means for retail, Carphone Warehouse, for example.

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