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BlackBerry chief: We don't have to make phones to make phones

If you see what I mean. Do you? Does anyone?

BlackBerry CEO John Chen said his company has an internal project to bring Android security up to the level of its BlackBerry 10 platform, which should bear fruit after the release of Android N.

He also hinted at a future based around brand and technology licensing.

"We have a tremendous amount of technology. We can stay in the handset business by not making every handset," he told journalists at a Q&A during the company's annual Security Summit in New York today.

"Maybe even the name," he mused, elaborating on what BlackBerry could license. "I could stay in the handset business where I provide a strong secure entry point, and I'm providing my customers continuity and a soft landing. When I said we're not going to produce Classic any more, everyone made it sound like we're getting out of the hardware business. It's not true. Or not yet anyway."

In the most recent company reorganization, Chen reminded his audience, he'd eschewed the name "devices."

"When I segmented out the device business, I didn't call it a device business," he said. "It's a mobile solutions business. So whether it's crypto or antenna, we are willing to license it. There will be a component in mobile that becomes revenue. As long as hardware makes money I don't care whether it's 30 per cent, or 40 per cent, or 50 per cent of our business. Making money with our handset business is our Number 1 priority."

At times Chen did sound like he was leading the world's most reluctant phone company.

"The real reason [for selling phones] ... is customers," he said. "We still have a lot of BlackBerry customers. We have government agencies around the world, especially in the USA and Canada. You can't just walk away from those customers saying 'I don't want to make them anymore,' because these are the same people I have to go back and try and sell software to."

As to the security project, Chen was coy.

"I'm not going to tell you the codename because you'll keep asking me about it," he said. "It will coincide with N. We expect N to be a step up from M, and we need to add our code to it." Expect release in a time frame some "six to eight months out," he added.


Chen managed a sideswipe both at Apple ("the other fruit company") and at lawmakers who demand a back door in secure products.

"They have an attitude that it doesn't matter how much somebody harms society, they're not going to help," the CEO said. "Like anybody, Apple should have a basic civic responsibility ... to help out. The guidelines we've adopted require legal assets, a subpoena for certain data. Encryption tech has now gotten to the point where nobody has the ability to get the content.

"It's more an attitudinal thing: my neighbor is in danger."

But he warned law enforcement policy makers that mandatory backdoors really weren't a good idea. "There's proposed legislation in the US and I'm sure it will come to the EU, that every vendor needs to provide some form of a back door. That is not going to fly at all. It just isn't," he said.

Chen suggested the Clipper Chip was a lesson from history that today's policymakers should heed. ®

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