Now that BlackBerry has fallen significantly behind Apple and Google in the race to offer features and third-party apps for its smartphones, the company is concentrating on providing devices that, it claims, have the strongest available security -- its "killer feature" for enterprises that have exceptional security needs.
At a company-sponsored symposium in New York today, BlackBerry executives made the case that the company's devices and services could offer levels of security for enterprises mobile devices that can not be replicated on Apple, Android, or other mobile devices.
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BlackBerry's fortunes have fallen on hard times in the past few years, as feature-friendly Android devices and iPhones have eaten away at sales even on the company's home turf, the enterprise. But the company's strong expertise in securing phones may continue to give it a competitive edge in those fields governed by stringent security policies and regulations.
To this end, BlackBerry announced today that it is purchasing Secusmart, a German company that offers a technology to encrypt voice calls and texts made on BlackBerry devices. Secusmart "will be a cornerstone of our security offering," said BlackBerry CEO John Chen at the summit.
For BlackBerry, the Secusmart purchase indicates the direction the company is going, namely to offer the industry's most comprehensive security package for mobile devices for those companies that require the highest level of protection. It touted how Secusmart's technology was just licensed to the German government, which is smarting over Edward Snowden's revelations of U.S. spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel and other officials, apparently including snooping on their smartphones.
Executives at the event touted how BlackBerry can offer end-to-end security protection, thanks to how it controls both the OS and hardware of its devices. Over time, it will also extend most of its security protections to other devices as well.
"A lot of vendors are starting to go to a unified mobile security platform. And that is the core of where the future of mobile security is headed. It is merging the security at the application layer, the operating system layer, and the network layer into a single platform," said Tyler Fields, an analyst for Forrester Research who covers mobile security. Those vendors "that make the unified platform will succeed in the long run," he said.
For example, in a new service called Guardian, BlackBerry scans all the third-party BlackBerry OS apps available for BlackBerry users, to ensure they are not malware. In future updates of the service, it will also scan any Android apps that have been installed on BlackBerry devices.
The company also stressed how organizations could control their devices through the use of the BlackBerry Enterprise Services (BES), using fine-grain permissions not available for other devices.
The BlackBerry OS will give an app just the permissions needed to access necessary functions and data. All other assets in a system are off limits, which should minimize the amount of tampering that malware can do. As each app is started up, it also is scanned to ensure it hasn't been changed. "The layers of security are so extreme, I don't think anyone else is touching this," said Dan Dodge, BlackBerry CEO of QNX, the kernel underneath the BlackBerry 10 OS.
One satisfied user has been the New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, which uses about 1,000 BlackBerry devices. The company is routinely audited by its corporate clients, which have strict compliance rules on securing data. BlackBerry eases this compliance checking process quite a bit. "There is not another manufacturer or developer that has achieved this level of security," said Peter Lesser, Skadden's director of global technology.
Stacy Crook, an IDC researcher for mobile security, said that the direction for offering end-to-end security through combined hardware and software is a good step for BlackBerry, though questions remain about the extent that they can secure other platforms, such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android, with this approach.
But Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw research, noted the limited market for BlackBerry's security capabilities: "BlackBerry’s Secusmart acquisition reinforces perception that BlackBerry is the solution for the enterprises with the highest security needs, while for everything else there’s iOS and Android."