Blackberry CEO John Chen shifts his focus to cybersecurity and his love for keyboards

Eight years after John Chen became CEO of BlackBerry, Waterloo’s venerable tech giant is heading in a new direction. Between its own reinvention as an enterprise software company and the headwinds of a global shortage of microchips, BlackBerry had to make some drastic course modifications by 2022.

In January, BlackBerry announced that it would shut down almost all old phones. Onward Mobility’s expected restart of BlackBerry’s 5G smartphone has been cancelled. (Austin-based companies have been collapsed since then). BlackBerry has sold off $ 600 million worth of legacy IP.

Chen admits that the BlackBerry migration is taking longer than expected, but he remains optimistic about the process. He told the star from San Francisco:

BlackBerry discontinued many older phones earlier this year. Do you miss you

Not perfect. I’m using it. I don’t know what to do without a keyboard. To be honest. I have a Samsung I was trying. Just type in the glass — I make many mistakes on an ongoing basis. Very stressful. Now you just type without looking.

This is Key2, the secure Android version of our phone. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been produced for a while and can’t be bought anymore. But like all BlackBerry phones, it lasts forever — knocking a tree. I don’t know what to do if this happens. I understand.

When many readers hear “BlackBerry”, they immediately associate it with the phone. What is BlackBerry doing these days?

We are a security software company. We have two major businesses. One is cybersecurity — protecting banking and government infrastructure. The other is secure software for Internet of Things devices. Most of our market penetration is in the automobile. Currently, there are about 200 million cars running around the world. For safety reasons, we use software for process control and lane changes.

The automotive industry, like everyone else, is really plagued by a shortage of chips. Is it worrisome to you when Blackberries enter the market?

We are very pleased to announce that we are the number one market leader in automotive software. We have been there for many years. Not being in this market is not really an option. We provide software to 24 of the top 25 electric vehicle manufacturers. There are 200 million cars running around with our software. “Well, that’s worrisome to us and I won’t be on the market,” we can’t really say.

However, the impact of COVID was significantly greater in early 2020. Car companies (which we call OEMs) have stopped producing cars around the world. It really hurts. And because the COVID pandemic was mitigated, he recovered and ran out of chips. Be affected. But that said, we’re outperforming the numbers because we’ve won many big designs in the last few quarters, especially the previous quarter.

Not long ago, we announced that we had won all contracts for Volvo’s commercial vehicles and trucks. The latest we got was BMW. The design win has yielded some revenue that offsets the loss of production due to its impact on the supply chain. Touch a tree where we are doing well and the fundamentals are very strong.

BlackBerry phones were famous for their security. What was it like to translate that experience into cybersecurity? Did you have a learning curve?

I think the basics are pretty similar. Customers who talk to us and interact with us now expect us to be secure with software rather than handsets. We are always known for providing safe and reliable systems. But now that it fits on anyone’s cell phone, it’s as reliable as the BlackBerry I’ve always enjoyed and expected. People buy it.

However, from a technology perspective, we need to step up in several different areas. It used to be an operating system. In order to provide software to everyone, we need to know not only about operating systems, but also middleware, applications, AI technology, and a wider range of fields. We built a lot of software ourselves, but we acquired and integrated many companies. They had the know-how we really needed. I think what we needed to change was to move the stack up and build basic security expertise. I didn’t start from scratch. We had to go a long way.

BlackBerry faced some criticism of its business plan. There isn’t much transparency about how to grow a company. What do you say to the person who says it?

Sitting in my shoes, obviously, I think it’s unfair. Critics will probably find it very fair. Eight years ago, we had to decide how to survive. Five years ago, we had to decide what the future would look like. In 2016, we decided that hardware and phones couldn’t be our future. But I had to move the stack up.

We have moved from the consumer hardware business that makes phones to the enterprise software business that provides software infrastructure. Everything has changed. Moved from manufacturing to software lifecycle development. We have moved from distribution through stores to corporate partnerships that deal directly with banks and governments. Everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. Thank you. It’s not over yet, but it’s going well.

So sometimes we can’t be too specific, as we still understand it ourselves. It’s not a lack of transparency. This is a hardware-to-software change. It’s from the consumer to the enterprise. We don’t want to make everyone feel like a hero or something, but there have been many changes — and we learned a lot in the process.

About a week ago, OnwardMobility decided not to use a smartphone with a 5G-compatible keyboard. I saw a report that I changed my mind about putting the BlackBerry brand on another smartphone. true?

You cannot comment. Think about where to get your next phone — I wish I had a BlackBerry keyboard. But I haven’t made any announcements. For OnwardMobility, it was a good partner to work very hard, but it took too long. For various reasons, we believe that not continuing the license is in the best interests of the company and the brand.

They worked very hard. We supported OnwardMobility because we personally needed their product, but on the other hand, we needed to protect the BlackBerry brand. If it’s continuously delayed and uncompetitive when it comes out, it’s bad for our brand. So, unfortunately, we decided that we should break up.

You plan to sell $ 22 million worth of BlackBerry stock next year. We understand that part of the reason for achieving our performance goals was the meme stock epidemic that hit BlackBerry last year. How was it to see your company’s stock price triple within a few days? Do you know that your bonus depends on it?

You can never expect such a thing. When I agree with the company and the board, payments come out only at fairly high stock prices. At the time the deal was signed, no one imagined that there would be this so-called “meme stock” in 2018.

How was it? I had lunch with a banker. We were chatting about this and he told me, “You’re pretty cool about these things.” One thing you need to know about me is that you aren’t really looking at the stock price. Actually, I don’t know where the current stock price is. My number one job is to strengthen the company’s fundamentals, not short-term stock prices. Short-term stock prices have nothing to do with it. That’s really it — is it worth it? If the foundation is good enough, will it last longer? That’s what I’m worried about.

I am worried about you. I’m worried if my employee’s salary is as safe as I can offer. We all love high stock prices — which is rewarding for shareholders — but it will come. It will come as a result of execution. So I didn’t feel anything.

You said you don’t monitor your stock price, but that’s a big part of your reward.

For eight years since I came here, I haven’t sold a share other than withholding. For me, my long term is long term. Eight years and I didn’t sell the stock. In fact, I bought the stock on the open market. I’m not a short-term transaction type person. Yes, that’s part of my reward, but I thought those stocks would be much more valuable than they are today if I build enough value in the company.

Why sell now?

BlackBerry is much smaller than it was when it was acquired in 2013. Still, do you think your tenure was successful?

When I took over — it wasn’t dramatic — we were on the verge of going out of business and collapsing. BlackBerry is small, but we are alive and kicking. Want to make your company bigger? absolutely.

I admit that the process of change was very extreme. It took longer than I expected. But we are definitely making progress every day. We are in two very high growth markets: cyber and the Internet of Things (IoT). We have a position in each market that is not trivial. Everyone knows the brand QNX (BlackBerry OS used in most electric vehicles). We are in a very strong position. We need to solve a few things, then we will grow.

The most important thing is to ensure consistency and a strong financial base of the company. This year, we have invested heavily in both businesses, so we spent cash and lost money. We will continue to do this until we see solid growth. Whether I’ve succeeded here or not, for the past eight years I’ll leave the decision to the audience.

If I had to protect the team, I would have unfortunately brought something out of breath to a strong, kicking company. Yes, I want to make it bigger. No questions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Blackberry CEO John Chen shifts his focus to cybersecurity and his love for keyboards

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