The Internet of Things may be a broad term, but there is no shortage of tech companies looking to grab a piece of its action, whatever it may be. Count BlackBerry among them, with its announcement of Project Ion, a vague encompassing name that promises to take a whole lot of data and disseminate it into chunks that will make sense on the other end.
BlackBerry CEO John Chen has indicated that the company will still be in the business of making hardware devices, namely smartphones, but this announcement may foreshadow a more direct foray into software. BlackBerry continues to lose market share to competitors in the important North American market, and isn’t faring any better globally. It’s already clear it will be a leaner company moving forward, but it also seems probable that its long-term salvation will come from software and services, not shiny new handsets.
What Chen and co. are banking on is the fact the Internet of Things (IoT) is still in its relative infancy. Not everyone really understands the depth and breadth of where it could go, so infrastructure becomes a key chip to play. After all, IoT is all about devices connecting to each other through the Internet. A smartphone can effectively tap into everything from a computer, thermostat, light bulb, home appliance and car stereo. As more and more devices join in the fray and become Internet-enabled, the higher level of connectivity will mean more data going in every direction. That will create a need for greater security.
Despite the increasing level of connectivity between devices as it is today, it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. Once wireless Internet becomes so pervasive and fast that people can be connected everywhere, it might then be a world where things like contact lenses, retail stores and beds will be able to collect and interpret information, most likely to a central repository of your choosing. This is profound when you consider that it goes well beyond just consumers tinkering with their connected devices because it also impacts how businesses large and small actually do business.
BlackBerry thinks IoT will “transform how modern business is done”. That’s probably true, though no one really knows what the road map will look like, thereby providing opportunities for companies like BlackBerry that need them. Chen feels there’s a need for a “secure public applications platform for the Internet of Things that operates at a global scale”.
This is being pursued from three directions. The first is a secure QNX-based cloud product for companies and developers, with an early version soon to be ready for “select companies and partners” to test out. Globally scalable, the platform should be able to handle millions of transactions and exabytes of data generated by these objects every day.
The second consists of building an IoT ecosystem of partners, carriers and app developers. The third is made up of new partnerships, including memberships in the Industrial Internet Consortium and the Application Developer Alliance, which puts BlackBerry in the conversation on how to drive things forward in IoT.
Indeed, much of what is going on behind the scenes may fly right over the average consumer’s head. These moves will have more to do with how enterprises and small businesses operate within an IoT environment, than they might with the end-user closing a garage door half a world away.
As is, IoT is fairly splintered. Connectivity is linear insofar as which device and app can actually talk to each other. In other words, you can have a connected light bulb, thermostat, and washing machine, but they all use different apps and may not even be compatible with BlackBerry to begin with. Apple is attempting to remedy the fragmentation with recently announced updates to iOS, but Chen is right in suggesting a more robust infrastructure on the backend is going to be needed.
What Chen and the braintrust around him have is a vision. They aren’t just looking to catch up to others, but actually leapfrog over them and offer the industry something everyone can benefit from. This might also align with other software and service pieces like BBM, which will eventually be positioned as a mobile payment platform, and QNX, which continues to play a key role in automotive infotainment.
No matter how you look at it, BlackBerry’s announcement was far more muted than past product launches that ultimately couldn’t deliver as much as promised. Perhaps the less is more approach will lead to different results, given there’s more of a vision at work here than raising the proverbial hand and letting the world know the company is still alive and kicking.