BlackBerry’s Pitch for Driverless Dominance

The technological world is littered with companies that once sold ‘The Hot New Thing’.

When technology and trends moved on, though, these businesses were left behind. One such company that had been left nearly for dead by many pundits and consumers is BlackBerry, which at one point made the mobile communications device, the eponymous BlackBerry email pager. That product went the way of the Dodo bird a decade or so ago with the invasion of the iPhone and peer smartphones into our lives. BlackBerry faded away into irrelevancy.

At least to the general public. The connected car world is a different story. “To insiders and industry experts, the BlackBerry brand has meant, and still means, secure,” said Matt Arcaro, research manager, next generation automotive at IDC. “In an automotive world where software and more importantly data is the new currency, being secure is a differentiator.”

The company motored into the vehicle space with its acquisition of automobile tech specialist QNX in 2010. Building on QNX’s stock in trade, in-car infotainment systems, BlackBerry positioned the business unit as a major provider of foundational in-car operating systems.

One part of QNX’s appeal is flexibility. It’s a relatively light system upon which an automaker or a solutions provider can develop various types of connected vehicle functionalities. More importantly for many of these clients, though, is that emphasis on security. This feature made the old BlackBerry email devices popular with government entities and big companies with sensitive information to protect. In this respect, BlackBerry and QNX were well matched.

“QNX’s focus on providing a safe, secure, reliable and trusted software platform for the automotive and general embedded markets has remained constant both pre and post the BlackBerry acquisition,” said Grant Courville, vice-president, products and strategy at BlackBerry QNX.

With an advanced-level or, ultimately, autonomous car, these elements are a must. Real-time data has to flow uninterrupted through “pipes” that are as protected against hacking as possible.

Flexibility and security are powerful selling points and they’re obviously striking a chord with the market. Last year, BlackBerry announced that QNX software was in use in more than 150M cars around the world, a roughly 25% increase from the year before. Some of the planet’s most significant carmakers are clients; BlackBerry listed General Motors, Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen, among others.

However, what’s hot in any area of tech today can be shoved aside with a solution that is better, cheaper, faster, or a combination of any of the above. BlackBerry and its auto tech unit are clearly aware of this, which is probably a key reason behind the company’s recent unveiling of a set of functionalities to compliment the base QNX OS.

It has integrated the capabilities of Cylance, a recent $1.4Bn acquisition, into QNX. This results in a next-generation “concept solution” that in its own words is “a new AI-based transportation solution that provides holistic visibility and control of the security and health of a vehicle to OEMs and commercial and public fleets looking to ‘future-proof’ their vehicles”.

BlackBerry also announced a partnership with Amazon Web Services, the retailer’s cash-cow cloud computing platform. It marries QNX’s OS with Amazon Web Services’ IoT functionalities and gives scope for clients to create tailored apps and machine-learning models for their systems.

These tie-ups and new offerings are impressive but, in a way, BlackBerry and QNX have little choice but to broaden their range. The prize is awfully big and other companies have their eyes on the OS segment, particularly in a world where systems can be constructed with free building blocks. Arcaro points out that “the biggest challenge that QNX faces is the maturation of alternative open source-based solutions that are becoming readily available.

“This is most evident in the area of infotainment (ex., AGL and Android) but as OEMs and suppliers become more and more comfortable with open source (and as the breadth of the open source code base grows) this will proliferate across automotive domains.”

Courville doesn’t see much of a threat from open source. As an example, he said that: “Linux, which many of our competitors use, comes from the complex microprocessor

world but does not have the necessary safety certification or real-time pedigree to be appropriate for safety-critical systems in the car (i.e. steering, brakes, engine systems, etc.)”

It also doesn’t have BlackBerry behind it. According to Arcaro, the company “has a strong reputation and brand loyalty among automotive manufacturers and suppliers”. He cites QNX’s more than 20-year “pedigree” as one element of this and the fact that it “has never missed a committed production vehicle program delivery date”.

“As time is money to OEMs, having dependability they can count is key,” he said. If BlackBerry and QNX can maintain these habits while broadening and innovating, its systems should continue to be popular and straddle the cutting edge – unlike those funny old email devices it used to sell.


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