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BlackBerry’s behind-the-scenes strategy to make money off Android and iOS

BlackBerry’s behind-the-scenes strategy to make money off Android and iOS

“Still using the BlackBerry, eh?”

The comment came during a break in a meeting I was having this week with the head of technology at a large customs brokerage, when he noticed the phone I’d whipped out for a quick e-mail check. The tone behind the comment was obvious. To continue using a BlackBerry (and not even a new model) amid the popularity for iPhones or Samsung’s Galaxy S4 is starting to look like either an act of patriotism or a failure to keep up with the most fashionable technology. I tried not to look embarrassed, but then he went on.

“I still support BlackBerry,” he said. “We’re still using them all over the place here.”

Of course they are. Although there were some stories last year of high-profile corporations moving to other devices en masse, the security and management behind BlackBerry’s products make them integral to many organizations. This week’s BlackBerry Live turned the focus, understandably, to all the changes at a consumer level, like the introduction of colourful Q5 devices for emerging markets and the release of the BBM messaging service to non-BlackBerry platforms. Those things won’t add much to BlackBerry’s bottom line, but a less-discussed move might. Even as it attempts to revive its handset business, BlackBerry is slowly but surely repositioning itself as a mobile device management (MDM) firm.

During the keynote speech broadcast online from Orlando on Wednesday, BlackBerry COO Kristian Tear had the unenviable task to talking about BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10.1, the software that allows companies to know who’s using what on a BlackBerry device and to make sure the information on each phone is protected. BES is a staple inside the Fortune 500, but that status has been threatened by the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement.

“We know that you have more than one type of device coming in, and you need one solution to manage them all,” Tear admitted.

Although BlackBerry had previously offered a few basic MDM tools to handle non-BlackBerry devices, BES 10.1 will be complemented by Secure Work Space, an app that BlackBerry will offer through Google Play and the Apple App Store. The app will basically partition off any of the work-related software and data you have so that your employer can manage and protect it, while consumers can still check Facebook or their online banking privately. The Secure Workspace app will connect to BES 10.1 and should work with almost any brand of smartphone.

Investors should be paying attention to this because growing its MDM portfolio is a lot more important than what happens with the Z10, Q10, or the BBM service. It’s an area where BlackBerry has a long track record. Apple shows no interest in BYOD issues. Samsung has reportedly delayed its own enterprise MDM tool, Knox, for its Galaxy devices until later this summer, and it likely won’t be cross-platform. Research firm Gartner, meanwhile, recently called MDM the fastest-growing category of software ever.

The strategy that’s taking shape is this: sell BlackBerry devices to develop as many consumer relationships as possible. Use BBM to reinforce branding and experiment with incremental mobile advertising revenue. Most importantly, expand BES capabilities to make money off competitors who aren’t stepping up to corporate security and management needs. Ironically, the company may end up offering the easiest (and in some cases only) option for using your iPhone or Android device both at work and at home. If mobile communications is starting to look like a fashion show, BlackBerry is ensuring its long-term future by taking control of the catwalk.