BARCELONA -- BlackBerry, best known for its trademark keyboard-equipped smartphones, wants to break out of its own shell.
The niche device manufacturer on Sunday unveiled its plans to create a "BlackBerry Experience Suite," taking BlackBerry features like its Hub messaging portal, virtual keyboard and security capabilities -- among others -- and turning them into a collection of apps and features that will be made available to iPhones, iPads and devices running on the Android and Windows operating systems. The apps will come later this year.
The move is part of a larger shift by BlackBerry toward the more lucrative software and services business. It also signals a willingness to embrace operating systems it previously would have considered a competitive threat. That philosophy is likely encouraged by its struggle to maintain relevancy in the smartphone business -- the BlackBerry operating system ceded even more market share in 2014, falling to 0.4 percent of the market, according to IDC.
"I look at all the assets we have, from the user interface to security -- there was really a hidden gem to build a good book of business," CEO John Chen said on a media conference call.
Samsung and BlackBerry
The latest example of its new cross-platform attitude: an updated announcement on its partnership with Samsung and the Knox security platform. BlackBerry said on Sunday that it would bring two new business-class services to Knox: WorkLife, a feature that allows businesses to split their employees' Samsung phones into separate work and personal identities through a "virtual SIM," making it easier to bill for work use; and the SecuSUITE encryption software that Blackberry gained from its acquisition of Secusmart last year.
As part of the deal, BlackBerry will sell the Knox services to Samsung customers. Likewise, Samsung will sell BlackBerry products and services through Samsung Business Services, a portal that the world's largest cell phone maker has set up for its business clients.
"With the introduction of these new services from BlackBerry, the needs of both enterprises and their employees will be met with Samsung Knox devices," said Injong Rhee, executive vice president of Samsung's mobile and IT enterprise business, in a statement.
While Samsung dominates the smartphone world, its reputation in the business world lags behind even BlackBerry's -- particularly in the heavily regulated industries it wants to target with Knox. That's where BlackBerry comes in.
"We have a common customer, and we're the gold standard in security," said Billy Ho, executive vice president of BlackBerry's enterprise business. "They can use our brand."
A new cross-platform world
Though BlackBerry has historically used its software features as an advantage on its own hardware, it's coming to a realization that it may have more of a presence if it takes its software to more people.
"As hardware shrinks, there's a bigger opportunity to make software and package it cross platform," Chen said. "So our serviceable market won't just be on BlackBerry, but other devices."
BlackBerry has already moved to work with other operating systems. The company released its popular BBM messenger service to Android and iOS in 2013, and its BES12 system manages BlackBerry, Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices.
The BlackBerry Experience Suite will include three categories: productivity; communication and collaboration; and security. The features will include its Hub portal for seeing all e-mails, messages and social updates; software power-management tricks; the ability to view and edit documents across devices seamlessly; and security enhancements to protect personal files and to guard against malware and data theft.
The apps will likely look and feel the same across different platforms, but Chen acknowledged that there would be some difficulties in getting the security aspects into Apple's iOS operating system, since there is limited access to parts of the platform.
Still a devices company
BlackBerry's recent moves shouldn't be taken as an indication that the company has given up on the hardware business.
"You should not assume that we are less interested in devices," Chen said.
BlackBerry is scheduled to hold a press conference at the Mobile World Congress trade show on Tuesday, where Chen has promised to lay out the company's roadmap for the year's products.
Though Chen himself has a background running software businesses, he said it would take years before BlackBerry's software assets would catch up to the hardware side. Roughly three-quarters of its revenue still comes from the hardware business, and Chen said he intends to keep focusing on that part of the company.
Chen reiterated his target of generating $500 million from the software business in fiscal 2016. The company is expected to post revenue of $3.27 billion in that period.
"It's a gradual process, not a onetime thing," Chen said about the software side. "All of these things are the ground to get more focused."
Mobile World Congress 2017
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