BlackBerry's software shift complete but branding challenge exists, says top exec

Marty Beard
BlackBerry chief operating officer Marty Beard

Blackberry's shift from smartphone maker to a software company is complete but branding remains challenging for the company with a legacy in hardware design, says one of its top executives.

Chief operating officer Marty Beard said that while the technology firm is "100 per cent complete" in its transformation, changing perceptions about BlackBerry remains an obstacle.

"Biggest challenge?" Beard said in an interview. "You've got decades, literally, of a brand associated primarily with smartphones – we created that space."

All that remains of its former empire is some of its newest smartphone devices, including the DTEK50 and DTEK60, which it continues to sell until inventory runs out.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based firm announced last September that it would stop making phones after struggling with profitability as Apple and others dominated the market, and instead focus on its growing software business.

Beard said BlackBerry's efforts now centre on what it sees as a significant trend, connectivity, and securing all the devices consumers and businesses hook up to their Internet network, like cellphones, tablets and wearables.

One burgeoning market the company feels poised to capture is self-driving vehicles.

Currently, its QNX software – basically, an operating system for a car's applications, like its acoustics and infotainment system – operates in more than 60 million vehicles. Last December, that division opened a research centre for autonomous cars in Ottawa where developers are working to create secure software.

Security is a huge concern for the industry, said Beard, pointing out the potential for hackers to remotely take control of a self-driving vehicle.

"Obviously that's a life or death situation," he said. "Security becomes just paramount."

Beard believes BlackBerry's reputation for developing secure software positions it as a leader in that space and the company has had to amp up their marketing efforts to get the word out.

The key is being consistent and clear about the new BlackBerry, he said, though that becomes complicated when, like last weekend, a new BlackBerry-branded smartphone is released.

Last Saturday, TCL Communication Technology Holdings Ltd. (TCT) revealed the KEYone, a new phone under a partnership with BlackBerry. The deal allows TCT to design, manufacture and sell BlackBerry-branded cellphones that use the technology firm's software.

BlackBerry receives a commission for each phone sold, Beard said, so it wants the device to be phenomenally successful. But it's a brand challenge to ensure everyone understands BlackBerry only makes the software inside the phone, rather than the phone itself, he added.

Despite this, the company is clearly excited about its new direction.

"It's sort of the first inning of the baseball game," Beard said of the growing connectivity trend BlackBerry intends to capitalize on.