“I work for BlackBerry. Yes, they still exist.”
This is how I introduce myself when I speak in conferences, and sometimes also when I meet new people. When I hear the way people laugh when I add the second sentence, I realize that this was the thought that had just crossed their minds. Usually they follow up with the question: so what does BlackBerry do nowadays, anyway?
Somebody even quoted me on Twitter about it during my talk at ngVikings:
I’ve gotten all kinds of interesting reactions when I tell people this, some amused, some incredulous — even a few concerned — but they always follow up with the question: “Okay, so what do you do there?”
It’s pretty easy to explain what I do there, but harder to explain what BlackBerry does these days (which is, more or less, what they’re really asking me). To be honest, in a lot of ways I’m not sure myself — and this was one of the reasons why I wanted to write this post. I wanted to learn more about the company I work for, and, as a by-product, be able to give a good, well-researched answer when people ask me what we’re up to these days.
A Little Disclaimer: I was not asked or paid by BlackBerry to write this post, and all of the explanations, opinions, and observations included below are my own and do not necessarily represent those of BlackBerry.
And Some Thanks: Thanks very much to my colleague, Nir Ben Zvi, who helped with tracking down some of the information for this post.
Update: As of November 2018, I no longer work for BlackBerry.
August 2019 Update: BlackBerry is shutting down its office Israel.
So How Did I End Up Working for BlackBerry?
In 2009, I started working for a small Israeli startup called WatchDox. WatchDox developed a secure solution for sharing documents and files online: think DropBox — but with added enterprise security features, such as tracking on every file action, granular file permissions, secure file viewer with embedded watermarks, etc.
In just 6 years, WatchDox grew from about 10 employees to nearly 100, and we had multiple large international clients such as Nike, Coca Cola, Chevron, just to name a few. In April 2015, WatchDox was acquired by BlackBerry for $59 million in cash, and so, all of a sudden, I became an “enterprise” developer working for BlackBerry: quite the culture shock, let me tell you. It was a total change of mindset in comparison with the start-up atmosphere we’d had before.
At first, there was lots of uncertainty about what was going to happen. While we knew that BlackBerry was once a very successful smartphone company, we also knew that we hadn’t been hearing as much about them lately, and we were learning that our product somehow fit in with their vision for their enterprise software offering. The then-CEO of WatchDox went on what would become a permanent vacation from the company, and then BlackBerry began starting the transition, which went way better than we were expecting.
BlackBerry did a good job of doing the transition slowly and carefully, making sure that we didn’t feel bombarded by the things that go along with corporate living all at once. Still, there was lots of paperwork to do, and over the course of the year-long migration, we got shiny-new employee badges, corporate email addresses (Oh, how I miss Gmail! Oh, how I hate Outlook!), and we switched over to the new HR systems.
By the end of the transition, we were well on our way to integrating our product with all the other BlackBerry enterprise software products (BES, Dynamics, etc.,) and were thinking up new names for the product (well, we were informed of the new name of our product… you know how it goes). After the dust settled, things for our group continued on more or less the same as before, and we’ve got a much better understanding of our position and how our product fits into BlackBerry’s vision.
There’s still some things I particularly miss about the start-up life — mostly the freedom when it came to software/development tool decisions, and the absence of a heavyweight, enterprise bureaucracy — but I’m still working on a product that I believe in, and I’ve still got the flexibility to do many of the things I love — like giving talks and playing with beacons.
When you google “Blackberry 2017 products,” you get mainly links related to smart phones. On Google Images, you get a mixture of smart phones and swimsuits:
However, this does not really represent what BlackBerry does these days — as far as I know, BlackBerry does not manufacture any swimsuits, and as of 2017, it shifted its focus from doing hardware and software to focusing solely on their software business. These days, the “BlackBerry” cell phone brand is licensed to TCL.
So what do we actually do?
Right now, we’re doing so many things it’s kind of hard to say “we do x,” because in truth, we do x, but also y, z, and lots more! One way to think of it, though, is that in the past, BlackBerry had been known for “Smartphones and Security.” Since the company no longer works in smartphones as much, we’ve doubled down on Security (and, therefore, software), and a good thing too: there’s lots out there that needs to be secured!
In the past few years, BlackBerry has quite a few up and downs. They’ve had quite a few mergers and acquisitions, some of which make good sense (like WatchDox!), some of which leave me scratching my head (social gaming? video editing?). That said, all that means is that BlackBerry has gained itself quite a few different capabilities recently, and what we’re doing now is putting them to work.
Right now, BlackBerry is primarily focusing on smart devices (connected cars, medical applications, that sort of thing), a little consulting here and there, and enterprise software. All of these areas play to BlackBerry’s strengths, namely its security expertise, and so I thought I’d tell you a little bit more about a few of our projects.
BlackBerry, Car Tech, and the Autonomous-Driven Future
Yes, we’re in the automotive game, and we’re already in deeper than you would think.
Our automotive software initiatives (in corporate-speak, a part of Blackberry Technology Solutions (BTS)) grew out of — you guessed it — one of our acquisitions! In 2010, BlackBerry acquired QNX Software Systems, who’s OS happens to be pretty popular with car manufacturers! QNX has served as a vehicle (no pun intended) for partnerships with a number of auto makers, and has set BlackBerry up to start working on autonomous (self-driving) vehicles as well. So even though we’re not competing in smartphones anymore, you could stay we’re still hot on Apple’s tail ;)
QNX is a realtime, embedded operating system. Although it is really a multi-functional OS, it really shines in the automotive industry. QNX (or some version of it) runs on more than 60 million cars, and it serves as the foundation for systems in everything from Audis to Toyotas (you can read a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, more complete list of what QNX has been used in here).
Right now, the operating system powers the Infotainment system of many car models, Ford’s SYNC 3, as well as SmartDeviceLink, a platform for connecting the vehicle’s infotainment system to smartphone, developed in a partnership between Toyota and Ford. The thing that the car manufacturers like so much about QNX is it’s built-in security.
Why does security matter so much, even in the infotainment system? Any software vulnerability is essentially another “door” in which you can get into the car. As more and more cars are connected to the Internet through cellular modems, hackers can find their way into the car though holes in the infotainment systems. One often-cited example is Chrysler’s Jeep Cherokee: a hacker demonstrated how to take over the car remotely by exploiting a security hole in its entertainment system.
If the infotainment system is connected with the critical systems in the car, and there are not enough safe guards built into the car, there’s nothing to prevent hackers from sending control commands to things like the breaks, steering, lighting… all sorts of things you probably don’t want someone else messing around with.
There are many startups working to alert and prevent this from happening. One example is cycuro, which my friend Matan Scharf, who helped with the Bank HTTPS post, runs. Cycuro tries to detect and alert on suspicious behavior happening inside your car. Argus, run by another friend of mine, Ofer Ben Noon, tries to protect the critical system in the vehicle by putting “Firewalls” inside.
Now for the fun part: self-driving cars!
BlackBerry has teamed up with Ford to work iteratively towards fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles. The big win for Ford with working with BlackBerry, of course, is our security expertise. The OS they’re jointly developing, QNX Neutrino, is going to be able to do things like intelligently recognize cars and other objects near the autonomous vehicle (so the car won’t crash into a double-parked car), adding to QNX’s existing telemetrics and driver assist capabilities, and will also show helpful maps on the car’s information screen. You can read more about the partnership here.
In addition to the work with Ford, at CES 2017, BlackBerry unveiled some neat, “smart car” projects with Jaguar and Aston Martin, as well as QNX-powered autonomous Lincoln concept car.
More Than Cars: QNX and the Internet of Things
As you know, the Internet of Things is near and dear to my heart, and it turns out the BlackBerry is working to use the capabilities of QNX in a number of other, non-car areas.
Turns out, the built-in security of the QNX-based OSs is attractive in a lot of other fields, too (and yes, I’m aware that’s an old list…).
For example, BlackBerry worked with the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) to use the QNX Neutrino OS to power their first electric locomotives, specifically using QNX in their the Train Control and Monitoring System (TCMS) and the Traction Control Unit (TCU). Just like in cars, security is paramount in trains, too.
In the healthcare space, having good software powering your devices is critical. You really don’t want a finicky commercial OS running critical software, QNX has stepped up as a secure, real-time OS that is proving useful in a number of healthcare applications, like surgical robots.
QNX has found its way into so many different devices and fields, that it’s even been targeted as a candidate for hacking by the CIA!
BlackBerry QNX Was A Potential CIA Hacking Target: WikiLeaks
BlackBerry might have lost out on the hardware front, but the same cannot be said for its software. BlackBerry's QNX…
I suppose that’s one way to know that you’ve “made it…?”
BlackBerry and the Enterprise
Although BlackBerry isn’t going to get back into actually building cellphones anymore, that doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten about mobile: they’re just going about working on it differently.
One of the big pushes right now is in Enterprise Device Management, or basically the infrastructure and tools for doing work on mobile devices. This effort includes UEM, a console for managing all the company’s devices, whether they run Android, iOS, Mac OS, Windows, or even Blackberry OS, and in the near future, the effort will probably also expand to IoT devices.
What UEM does is essentially help companies let their employees use their personal devices for work (“Bring Your Own Device,” or “BYOD”), while making sure that their company secrets don’t get leaked because an engineer left their not-password-protected phone on a park bench. Again, the challenge here is security: you don’t want just anyone getting access to your employee’s phones!
UEM allows companies to put any number of security protocols in place, from password requirements to app-specific controls. One of the tricks BlackBerry uses to make sure our enterprise solutions are secure is containerizing apps: think Docker, but for mobile apps. Essentially, we developed a platform that isolates any app from the rest of the operating system (providing a separate clipboard for copy-pasting only within the container, encrypted virtual file system that is shared only access the apps inside the container, secure communication between the containerized apps, protection against screen shots, etc.).
There are many advantages to using this extra layer of security. One obvious advantage being that the data is protected even if the device’s passcode is compromised. So for employee’s personal apps and data, the company can choose to rely just on the built-in pass code, but for the work data and files, employees will use a different pass-code/authentication mechanism that complies with the enterprise security policies. This allows employees to use the same physical device for personal and work while keeping the data separated.
BlackBerry also offers tools to manage enterprise identity — that is, ensure single sign-on across the company’s services as well as cloud services on all devices (e.g. Google Docs, One Note, Salesforce, WebEx… the list goes on and on). We can also implement two-factor authentication and make it so companies can manage all of that from one central place, the same UEM console mentioned above.
Other Mobile Efforts
BlackBerry provides mobile productivity tools for enterprise customers called Mobility Apps: email, calendar, docs, contacts, messaging, browser. They all work together in the containerized environment, so if you get a work email with a link to some web service internal to your organization, it will open inside the secure browser that is a part of the container.
There’s also Worklife, which splits your sim card into two phone lines by providing a virtual sim, giving corporations the ability to separate corporate vs. personal billing for their employees, as well as SecuSuit, which are essentially encrypted SIM cards that provide end-to-end encryption for calls and texts (notably used by the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel!).
Another interesting effort is BlackBerry’s apparent quest to make the Android platform more secure. For example, there’s Android for Work, developed with Google, and SecuTablet, which is a super-secure tablet built in partnership with Samsung.
Supporting 3rd Party Enterprise Developers
Not that long ago, BlackBerry announced Dynamics, a platform that helps you build your own apps on top of BlackBerry security, and integrate with the other blackberry services: UEM, workspaces, etc. The Dynamics SDK allows 3rd party developers to take advantage of the same containers technology mentioned above, and since it’s designed with enterprise applications in mind, it meets most enterprises’ security requirements right out of the box.
Dynamics supports on-premises, cloud, and hybrid app deployment models, and includes a secure data-delivery tool-suite. Since it’s designed for enterprise applications, it’s easily scalable and can support up to 20,000 users on a single server instance.
To up their developer-outreach game, BlackBerry has hosted developer summits and publishes lots of information on the topic. For our part, a few colleagues and I run a Dev.IL meetup at the Israeli office.
So Uri, What Do YOU Do At BlackBerry?
My team works on the Workspaces part of the enterprise device management solution I talked about above. We’ve adapted WatchDox to live comfortably inside the larger BlackBerry ecosystem, to allow our enterprise customers to share files and documents securely within the organization, as well as with third parties outside the organization, in a controlled manner.
Most of the time, I’m focused on making my project/product great, and I don’t necessarily think about how it fits into BlackBerry’s larger vision. Doing this post was a fun way for me to think about my work in that larger context, and to learn about all the cool stuff BlackBerry’s been doing over the past few years.
Though people are still often disappointed when I tell them that no, BlackBerry doesn’t have a magic-phone-bullet hidden up its sleeve. It’s a shame that so much of the news coverage about the company still ties BlackBerry for the mobile hardware business, but hopefully that perception will start to change.
That said, it means I would have to come up with a new intro for my talks… so we’ll see :)