BlackBerry Security Summit 2015 – BlackBerry gets the message right

At their Security Summit held today in New York, BlackBerry moved boldly to stake its claim to leadership not only in the area of secure mobility, but perhaps more importantly, in the emerging arena of Machine to Machine (M2M) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

With an overall market share (estimated by IDC) at something less than 1%, one could understand some degree of skepticism from the reporters and analysts in attendance. Skepticism is putting it mildly. Given this market share, one reporter from Germany bluntly asked, “Is BlackBerry still alive?  How are you going to turn that around?”

To his credit, John Chen, BlackBerry’s CEO took all of this in stride. He acknowledged the challenges BlackBerry has faced head on and even with some degree of humour. He looked around the audience and asked who had been to last year’s Security Summit. When only a few hands were raised, he joked that they were probably BlackBerry employees.

BlackBerry as a “device agnostic” firm?

Then, in his understated way, Chen went on to make BlackBerry’s case that market share in mobile devices was not relevant to BlackBerry’s future plans. In fact, Chen’s only comment on handsets was that “they had to make money”. After that, neither Chen nor any of his team ever raised the topic of BlackBerry phones. Even in the lobby where the product demos showed off BlackBerry’s new software offerings, there were actually more Apple and Samsung devices than BlackBerry handsets. Under Chen, it seems, BlackBerry is trying to position itself as a “device agnostic” firm.

Enterprise Mobility Management

BlackBerry’s CSO David Kleidermacher reinforced the point that manufacturing mobile devices is not the end game. He noted “Blackberry’s aim is to manage all mobile devices and more.” If you’ve seen the recent release of BES 12 you agree with Gartner and others who believe that it has indeed vaulted BlackBerry into a leadership position in the area Enterprise Mobility Management.

Kleidermacher went further, pointing out that Chen and his team have a more ambitious plan, one that has the potential to restore some, or maybe even all of BlackBerry’s former stature. They aim to dominate the large and growing market for secure communications of all devices, including sensors and embedded systems that allow M2M communication in the IoT.

The Internet of Things Opportunity

The opportunity in the IoT market is staggering. As BlackBerry CFO Marty Beard explained, IoT is expected to generate over 11 trillion dollars in economic value and require 4.3 trillion dollars of new technology by 2024.

But the question is not the size of the opportunity. Few analysts would disagree that IoT represents a quantum leap in technology investment.  The real question is, can BlackBerry compete and win a significant share of this emerging market?  Chen and his team used the remainder of the Security Summit to make the case that BlackBerry could do just that.

One thing you have to admire about Chen is that he has attracted some incredible talent to the organization. Throughout the event, they functioned like a team, staying on message and each contributiong to making a convincing case that BlackBerry, despite its drubbing in the handset market, retains the core strength and the ability to once again be a major player on a global scale — albeit in a new arena.

For example, when it comes to security, which is critical to the success of IoT, BlackBerry’s credentials are unassailable, even by its biggest critics. But the team took nothing for granted, giving example after example, focusing on enterprise successes in healthcare, government, and other regulated industries. Their final client panel was dominated by healthcare clients, but one example trumped them all, as Kleidermacher pointed out that BlackBerry provides secure communications for field military operations. He went on to explain that if a soldier gets captured, his or her captors have the full access to the resources of large governments, including armies of computer scientists and even super-computers at their disposal. Yet even then, BlackBerry network can be trusted to remain secure in that environment, which is the ultimate endorsement. It was a compelling story.

BlackBerry – significant investment and acquisitions

While BlackBerry has lost money at an alarming rate, we were reminded by Marty Beard, BlackBerry’s COO that the company still has significant cash reserves. As a result, despite the losses, it can afford to make the required investments to achieve and maintain leadership – they spent over 100 million dollars last year to develop and expand their secure messaging options. Part of this has been spent on acquisitions. In September of 2014, BlackBerry added Movirtu – a company that has brought “secure container” technology. In April 2015, just before the last Security Summit, Chen announced the acquisition of WatchDox, an Israeli company that has some has some impressive document and data collaboration tools. And days before this event, Chen announced the acquisition of AtHoc, a US company that specializes in crisis communication. In the presentations and the demos that accompanied the summit, the team made the case that the synergies in terms of products and technologies are very clear – and watching the presentations from the leaders of these acquired companies, one felt that they bring more than their software. They all spoke passionately about “having done their due diligence” as well as their excitement about the opportunities of working with BlackBerry and Chen. The cynic could say that they could be expected to support their new company. But what really came through was the passion and the entrepreneurial spirit to drive the continuing and enormous changes that must occur if BlackBerry is to achieve its lofty goals.

A crisis of confidence and the importance of user experience

BlackBerry CSO David Kleidermacher pointed out some of these challenges. “Managing security,” he stated, “requires more than technical competency.” , and “today’s enterprises are losing the security battle,” because “we’re adding too much complexity.”  To Kliedermacher, the challenge is in confidence as well as competence. “How do we get to a place where enterprises can be confident in their security?”  The answer isn’t in the classic solutions – adding layers and layers of complexity. Today’s enterprises are striving to simplify their processes and users will not stand for solutions that are overly complex or difficult to use.  And as any CIO knows, command and control won’t work either. “Blocking everything” said Kleidermacher, “was not an effective approach. If you restrict your users’ ability to be productive, they will work around you.”

The BlackBerry portfolio – impressive additions

Watching the demonstrations from WatchDox and AtHoc, and discussing what Movirtu enables in the BlackBerry world showed that these new acquisitions promised much in enabling that type of productivity. In a demo environment you can’t do a deep dive, but the design and execution of the user experience was impressive, that and BlackBerry’s BES 12 show that BlackBerry has focused on making device management work effectively in a BYOD world. BlackBerry’s own work on BES 12’s design and user interface are also notable. The ease of managing multiple devices and a wide range of user groups makes this a package worth considering. The unique way they manage containerization, particularly with Samsung’s Knox are impressive. BES 12 reduces complexity and offers much in the way of productivity improvements, including the needed simplicity of “a one-stop shop for mobile security”. As promised, it manages a wide array of devices – IOS, Android, Windows and more. Certainly the devil is in the details, and only field experience will prove the worth of all this work, but even the biggest of BlackBerry critics has to concede that they moving in the right direction – assembling the technological components that are necessary to win big in enterprise mobility management.

The key will be bringing this all together for a truly effective user experience. To be effective, great security has to support productive use. When IT departments had the power to dictate what devices were acceptable, technology alone was what mattered. In a age where consumerization is the rage, the design approach of simplicity and understanding of the end user is equally if not even more critical to success. From what I could see in my short review (I’ll be looking at these in more depth in future articles) is that it seems that this new portfolio has balance between real security and user experience.  As much as they talked about the security of corporate data, the speakers equally emphasized the need to protect the privacy of users. There were numerous examples of this, from containerization to partnerships with carriers – all in the name of simplifying the management and the user experience. For a company that so badly missed the consumerization phenomena, this is a valuable and necessary lesson.

Scalability – a key factor in the move to IoT management

In the area of scalability, BlackBerry has another check mark in the “win” column. Scalability is critical if the company wants to win at M2M communications. M2M and IoT will generate data on an unprecedented scale. Firmware updates will have to take place on a massive scale.  The technical challenges are daunting. Few companies in the world are in a position to manage secure messaging on this scale. BlackBerry makes the case that it is one of that few. As was mentioned numerous times, its worldwide network currently handles over 25 petabytes of data.

The need for standards – is BlackBerry uniquely poised to drive this?

If there is one thing that might derail or delay IoT it will be security. In a later demonstration, Kleidemacher drove this point home, showing the current structure of IoT devices was inherently insecure. He made the point that to remedy this required clear standards to ensure security without sacrificing interoperability. By analogy, he pointed out that SMS took off as a technology because it had clear standards. IoT security needs a similar set of standards to reach if it is to reach its true potential.  Curiously, BlackBerry’s loss of its leadership in the device market actually is a plus in this area. Without the baggage of a proprietary technology that it must defend, their “device agnostic” stance combined with prominence in the areas of academic research and government, BlackBerry is well placed to help develop those much needed standards. As Chen pointed out in his keynote, the company is doing just that: actively working in the industry to facilitate this process.

Timing is everything

Clearly, BlackBerry has the right message and the right timing. We are still early in the adoption of IoT. There is a growing realization that security and scalability are key issues that will accelerate or impede its growth. And as was pointed out, BlackBerry has been at this for some time, working hard to develop and supplement its capabilities over many months. After years of what seemed like drifting and flip-flops in key areas, the change and the focus is refreshing.

But as Arnold Palmer used to say, “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” In terms of timing of this summit, it’s unlikely that BlackBerry could be any luckier. The picture of the German Chancellor’s phone being hacked in one presentation was a powerful image – showing that only BlackBerry meets the standards of government privacy. But in terms of recent events, it was just before this summit that a video from Wired demonstrated how easily a car could be hacked and remotely controlled – shutting off the engine and disabling the brakes. The video went viral and was front-page news everywhere. So when BlackBerry CSO Kleidermacher, demonstrated how easily a key medical device could be hacked, not only was no-one was surprised, but every eye was focused on the screen as he showed just how easy it was to take over a device, gain root access and wirelessly control it, in this demonstration, killing the imaginary patient. It was a fitting wrap up that reminded everyone of the challenges of IoT security and of course, the promise of BlackBerry’s strength in this area.

Low key, intense and full of content – that describes the morning.  All in service of the point that under Chen’s leadership, with their new team, BlackBerry deserves consideration as a credible enterprise mobility management player. The real prize will come if it can leverage its strengths and ride the IoT wave to regain even some of its former size and stature. Nothing in the world of technology is certain and one morning won’t reset the company’s reputation. But it’s a great start.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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