BlackBerry was once king of the smartphone world, reaching more than 40% market share in the US in 2010. But those days are long past. At the beginning of this year, the Canadian company finally pulled the plug on its device business, ending support for its smartphone and tablet operating systems.
CEO John Chen argued that this was not the end but "the beginning of a new era" in which the company will focus on cybersecurity, which already generates around 70% of its revenue. This trajectory could offer plenty of opportunities. "It's a high growth market for any vendor to address," says Matthew Ball, chief analyst at Canalys.
But there are also challenges specific to smaller players like BlackBerry that need to be worked around. "We have not seen the broad growth [with BlackBerry] that we see with other security vendors," says Fernando Montenegro, senior principal analyst at Omdia.
The Waterloo, Ontario-based company is a leader in cybersecurity for the automotive industry and plans to further develop the capabilities of its BlackBerry QNX embedded OS. According to CTO Charles Eagan, the company also aims to continue to improve its other products, including the Spark Suite, currently used by governments, businesses, and financial institutions.
"There's still a lot that we're offering, and we hope people can see us in the new light," Eagan says.
Focusing on Cybersecurity
BlackBerry's plans of reinventing itself as a security company capitalize on one of the firm's remaining strengths. "This focus allows them to husband their limited resources and focus those resources on the most significant opportunity for advancement," says Enderle Group technology analyst Rob Enderle.
At the beginning of 2022, BlackBerry secured more than 500 million mobile, desktop, and Internet of Things (IoT) endpoint devices. The number includes almost 200 million vehicles built by top manufacturers, such as Ford, GM, BMW, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Volkswagen. These brands use BlackBerry QNX, which has a robust cybersecurity component and allows the control of a wide range of safety-related systems, such as cruise control, tire pressure, and automatic parking. On the electric vehicle market, QNX is used by 24 of the top 25 manufacturers, the only exception being Tesla.
BlackBerry's CTO says that QNX remains a strategic part of the business, and the company is investing in developing it further. Another product that will gain new capabilities is Spark Suite, which helps organizations secure and manage endpoints, whether employees are working in the office or remotely. Spark offers visibility covering people, devices, networks, apps, and automation and provides organizations with a zero-trust architecture and a zero-touch approach.
Eagan is particularly proud of making the authentication processes easy for the user. "You shouldn't need to be a Ph.D. in cybersecurity to be able to do your job well," he says.
The company's experience in embedded systems and endpoint security can be a great starting point. Still, analysts argue that QNX and Spark might not be enough to create a bright future for BlackBerry. "They start to fall behind in scenarios where there are broader requirements for security overall, such as extended detection and response [XDR], cloud security," Montenegro says.
To keep pace with the competition, analysts say BlackBerry needs to strengthen its products through strategic acquisitions, such as that of Cylance a few years ago, that boosted its machine learning competencies.
"Mergers allow a company to gain technical competencies in new areas without waiting for R&D to provide them," Enderle says. "It exchanges cash for time to market, and both security and automotive technology are moving too quickly to play catch-up with R&D, so acquisitions become the more robust path and a better way to react to the market given BlackBerry is too small to drive the market in the way far larger firms can."
Past vs. Future
To succeed as a cybersecurity company, BlackBerry needs to learn from past mistakes, turning into a dynamic brand that's quick to adapt to customers' needs. Eagan says that the experience of building the secure messaging platform BBM is a solid foundation to build on and that the company has many highly skilled employees.
"There are people who have spent their whole careers in BlackBerry on how you boot a device securely," he says. "The lessons on securing phones apply to securing cars, servers, cloud workload, network traffic. You learn a lot of subtle technologies and approaches that apply well."
But while looking at the past could provide valuable insights, BlackBerry needs to do much more than relive its glory days. "Given the massive strategic shifts that the market overall has taken, as well as changes to company strategy, I don't see anchoring expectations to the past as being realistic," Montenegro says. "The company has to look into what its current blockers are – Does it need to expand go-to-market? Is it a matter of product fit? Is it time for a broader expansion into an adjacency? – and go from there.
If BlackBerry plays its cards well, it can shift its narrative. Ultimately, building cybersecurity products might prove more efficient than selling devices. "Software has a far higher potential of driving profit and revenue than hardware because you essentially eliminate the manufacturing problem tied to the hardware," Enderle says. "Generally, software companies can outstrip hardware companies because of their ability to scale more quickly."