John Chen Is Inventing a Brand-New BlackBerry

In early November, BlackBerry recruited former Sybase CEO John Chen to turn around its floundering business. Last week, Chen provided a glimpse of his strategy, although many details still need to be nailed down. However, whereas the previous management team was focused on succeeding as a smartphone maker, Chen has shown clearly that devices are his lowest priority.

Instead, he's looking to refashion BlackBerry into a completely different kind of company. The three main growth areas Chen wants to pursue are secure enterprise services, messaging, and the QNX operating system. His success will be determined by whether revenue from these high-margin areas grows fast enough to cover BlackBerry's operating expenses within the next two or three years.

Lots of assets but terrible execution
BlackBerry's problems in the past few years have been caused by the combination of a lack of innovation and terrible execution. Most obviously, the company was slow to move to a touchscreen interface after Apple revolutionized the mobile industry with the iPhone. As a result, BlackBerry fell so far behind in the smartphone race that it can no longer compete except in a very small niche.

An equally big problem was BlackBerry's failure to adequately monetize its assets through other revenue streams. The company's previous management teams put all of their eggs in the "smartphone" basket and were unsuccessful there. However, the company's IP could also potentially be monetized in other ways.

Doubling down on the enterprise
Today, BlackBerry's most promising opportunity is in secure enterprise services. This includes mobile device management (keeping work and personal data separate on mobile devices and securing the enterprise data) and secure messaging -- two areas where BlackBerry already has strong capabilities.

More than 80,000 companies already use BlackBerry for mobile device management (primarily of BlackBerry smartphones). Moreover, BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 can also be used to secure iPhones and Android phones. In its quarterly report, BlackBerry stated that more than 30,000 commercial and test BES10 servers have been installed.

However, BlackBerry is still in the "start-up" stage of managing non-BlackBerry devices. It turns out that BES10 has hardly generated any revenue yet, because BlackBerry provided free trial and free upgrade offers through the end of 2013 to show off the service's value.

By next year, BES10 will start generating revenue. At that point, investors will get a better sense of how well BlackBerry is converting free trials to paid enterprise subscriptions. CEO Chen also plans to introduce add-on capabilities soon, such as secure messaging and a secure productivity suite. These should drive incremental revenue for this business.

Other business opportunities
BlackBerry's other significant opportunities relate to the opening up of its BlackBerry Messenger platform for iPhone and Android users and finding new applications for its QNX operating system.

At the BlackBerry Live conference in May, former BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins announced the plan to launch BBM as an iOS and Android app. Given that BBM was no longer enough of a differentiator to drive BlackBerry smartphone sales, this was a sensible plan.

The BBM app was downloaded more than 10 million times in the first 24 hours after its release and had 20 million active iPhone and Android users within a week. This rapid adoption can probably be traced to the large number of former BlackBerry -- and BBM -- users who have migrated to the iOS and Android platforms.

BlackBerry still faces significant challenges in monetizing BBM despite its active user base of more than 80 million people. However, there are a variety of interesting possibilities, e.g., a free ad-supported version with more features available for an additional fee.

The QNX operating system presents a different kind of challenge. More than 40 automakers use QNX, making it the dominant embedded OS for cars. While there may be some room for additional growth in that sector, the main opportunity here involves finding other good uses for QNX, which would allow BlackBerry to expand its addressable market.

Lots of risk ... but also opportunity
It should go without saying that turnarounds are risky, and bankruptcy is certainly a possibility for BlackBerry. However, under John Chen's leadership, BlackBerry is moving quickly to reduce the risk associated with its device business and to build up viable software and services businesses instead.

BlackBerry's existing assets, including its mobile device management systems, its secure messaging platform, and the QNX OS, could all potentially be viable businesses individually. Now, BlackBerry has to race to grow these alternative revenue streams to return to profitability before it burns through its $3.2 billion cash pile. Only one thing is certain: It will be a wild ride.

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