After a few years the company would rather forget, things are looking a little more up at BlackBerry these days. The company is on the verge of launching its second new phone in as many months – the Q10, on May 1, also know as the one with the actual keyboard – with hopes that it can get back in the smartphone game it originally pioneered.
Sebastien Marineau-Mes, the company’s senior vice-president of software, visited Toronto this week to talk about the company’s plans. Coming over in BlackBerry’s 2010 acquisition of Ottawa-based operating system maker QNX, Marineau-Mes has his sights set on a broader market than just smartphones. QNX, after all, makes the software that runs everything from car entertainment systems to nuclear reactors.
So, while the focus at BlackBerry right now is on the recently launched Z10 and the upcoming Q10, those aren’t the only things in the road map. Marineau-Mes sat down to discuss the past, present and future of BlackBerry. Here’s a condensed version of that conversation.
What were your priorities in developing BlackBerry 10?
What we were ultimately trying to achieve was a new operating system that was modern and that actually gave us a foundation on which to innovate for the next decade, as well as a completely new user experience. I think we’ve actually achieved something that’s quite unique with BlackBerry 10. It’s more of a computing experience than a traditional single-app mobile experience. If you look at how you transition from using a desktop or a laptop to using a mobile phone as your primary computer in the future, that was really critical. The full integration, the multitasking, the Flow and Peak [features] and the seamless integration of all that.
Another key part of it was, how do we enable people to build applications for it? One of the things that is fundamentally different from others in the industry is that we wanted to have an open ecosystem and embrace the different technologies that application developers used. If they wanted to do HTML development or Cascades development, Android development, they could take their apps and code base and bring them to the platform.
Were you developing for the phones at the same time as the PlayBook, or were you focused exclusively on the tablet?
PlayBook [released in April, 2011] was a stepping stone to the phone. If you look at the lineage, we started with the automotive software, which became PlayBook, which became BlackBerry 10 for the phone. Now, a lot of that software is going back to the next generation of the car and other devices.
Where else can you foresee BlackBerry 10 being implemented?
There are a number of vertical industries that can benefit from BlackBerry 10. A good example would be medical devices, which QNX has been in traditionally – diagnostic devices and so on. A lot of what you need in a mobile phone is also what you require in the hospital. If you think of wireless connectivity and security in terms of patient records, medication, having the ability for companies to build apps for your device. The hospital of the future may want to populate all these devices or terminals with custom-built medical applications. A lot of the same problems have to be solved, but there is additional complexity in medical in that it’s a highly-regulated industry. It’s a good hybrid of the BlackBerry consumer business and the traditional QNX business, which really tackled certifications and customizations and so on.
Hardware is easily commoditized so it’s been said that real value is in software. As a software guy, you may be biased, but what do you think of that assessment?
As a handset maker we need both. The hardware is a substrate on which the software runs. Obviously the hardware has to be competitive and desirable to the end user, but ultimately the user uses the software features. The user experience defines whether they’re going to find the device productive or not, and whether it’s going to do what you need it to do. You need both, but clearly a lot of the differentiation going forward is on the software side. The challenge that the Android makers have is that they’re hardware makers, yet they all get the same software from Google.
Yeah, obviously. I think if you want to provide true differentiated value to the end user, you need a high level of vertical integration. The benefit we have as a vertically integrated company is that whenever we want to innovate, we can actually innovate anywhere in that software-hardware-back-end-service stack. We can solve problems in a unique fashion that give the end user more benefits than if you’re constrained to only changing the applications, where you can’t change the operating system or the hardware. That’s really been the strength of BlackBerry traditionally.
Is the opposite model just a race to the bottom?
Exactly. It’s a commodity model.
So what went wrong with the PlayBook?
I think PlayBook was a good product. If you use it today, I think it’s still very competitive as a user experience, with hardware and speed and so on. Clearly, there were a number of things in the ecosystem that were not there initially, that’s pretty well known. It’s also been challenging, not only for us, but for almost everybody else to be competitive in the tablet space. I’m not sure what else to add on there.
There was talk about how the new BlackBerry phones kept getting delayed because the operating system wasn’t ready. Can you shed some light on that?
We wanted to launch when the operating system was ready, and building a new one is very, very complex. We did it in a lot less time than our competitors did. If you look at how long it took us to build BlackBerry 10, to get to the Z10 launch, it was less than two years. It took Google and Apple a lot longer to build Android and iOS. As we refine and experiment at the same time, you want to get it right when you first launch. You get one crack at it so you want to get it right, so we took the time to get it right.
And of course, that came into conflict with all the other …
… the business imperatives, yes, of course.
The reception for the new operating system has been generally positive. Are there any parts of it that you would like to see improve?
Launching the Z10 and the Q10 is really the start, it’s not the end. To me, this is version one of the operating system. We’ve been able to bring a lot of functionality and innovation on version one. We also have a lot of velocity in terms of building new features on BlackBerry 10 so what you’re going to see going forward is we have a lot of new ideas and innovations. We have a whole roadmap that you’re going to see coming to new phones and existing phones.
What can you do about the camera? There have been some gripes about it. Obviously a lot of the quality hinges on the software – what do you have to do improve photos on that front?
There are a couple of different things that we do on the software side. There’s obviously some tuning that we do, but cameras are actually a set of trade-offs, as I’m sure you could imagine. We’ve actually rolled out some improvements with the Q10. We’re going to continue to improve it going forward. There’s also the ability to improve pictures afterward, post-processing, and some of the features we have around time shift that also provide another dimension to the camera features. It’s a set of tradeoffs and we’re continuing to optimize that.
So where does BlackBerry go after the Z10 and the Q10?
We do have more products in the road map that we’ve announced. We’ve announced six for the next year, which will be very different form factors and price points. If you think of the traditional BlackBerry portfolio, it’ll be very similar. So that’s one, and then the second for us is really around software updates and new features. The model we’re taking going forward is really the platform model, where as we roll out new software updates, we deploy them across new devices that we’re launching with that software as well as existing devices. So as an example, we’re launching the Q10 with version 10.1 that has a number of improvements, and that’s also being rolled back. We’re updating in the field the Z10 devices that people have purchased. You’re going to continue to see that going forward.
We have a number of new innovations planned for fall releases in software and beyond. We’re also working on a number of things longer term around the integration of handsets with the device ecosystem you have in your car, in your home and so on. When you look beyond just the smartphone, that’s really the exciting part.
How big of a problem is app lock-in – where Android or iOS users are stuck on their phones because they’ve got all the apps they like – for BlackBerry?
The approach that we’ve taken is to be a really open platform, as opposed to a platform that tries to lock you in. I think that’s fundamentally different from our competitors and it allows us to bring Android applications to the platform. So a lot of Android apps can be brought over very easily. In terms of iOS apps, what’s interesting is that not a lot of them are specific to iOS, they use either web technology or standard graphics technology when you’re talking about gaming. In the case of games, there are vendors who provide game frameworks so if you’re a game developer and you code to that framework, it’ll go and run on BlackBerry and Android and iOS. In fact, it turns out that the portability that provides makes it very easy to bring your apps to BlackBerry.
But basically, the developer of the app has to make it available on BlackBerry, the consumer can’t just go and run Android apps.
What the developer has to do at a minimum is they have to take their app, package it and sign it and put it in our store. The mechanism by which you get applications onto your BlackBerry is BlackBerry World, and that’s very deliberate so we can curate it. But it’s a very simple step.
Having said that, why are a lot of app developers not doing that? If it is that easy, what’s holding them back?
Overall, the process is pretty straightforward. There are some apps that make use of more complex Android services that do require some adaptation and there it’s really a question of working with the vendor to bring it on to the platform. Any company has a road map of things they’re working on and you basically have to get on that road map. We have a team that does that under [senior director of business development] Marty Mallick, whose focus is to go and get those top hundred apps. That’s complemented by [vide-president of developer relations] Alec Saunders, who is really targeting the broader app ecosystem. We’ve invested a lot in both and if you look at the number of apps in the store, we’re on a good trajectory.