Can BlackBerry’s Samsung partnership help it woo businesses?
It’s been about one year since John Chen, CEO of BlackBerry, took the top job at the struggling phonemaker. Since then, he has embarked on a campaign to bring the company back to its roots and spark new innovations and partnerships where he feels necessary—in short, to make BlackBerry (BBRY) relevant to business users again.
To that end, this week in San Francisco Chen took the stage to make a number of announcements, including a recently-inked agreement with smartphone maker Samsung Electronics. According to the deal, both companies will sell each other’s mobile security products. (A true sign of the times: Chen joked with the audience about the fact his wife still uses a Samsung Galaxy phone.) The company also announced an updated BlackBerry Enterprise server, which will allow customers to more easily manage BlackBerries and devices made by other manufacturers.
Under Chen’s direction, BlackBerry’s losses are improving, but the company is still bleeding money and there is still plenty of cause for concern about its long-term prospects. Ahead of his announcements in San Francisco, Fortune caught up with Chen to hear more about his strategy—and Kim Kardashian.
Fortune: What does returning to BlackBerry’s roots mean to you today?
Chen: The overall returning to the roots is much beyond the device. The Classic [an upcoming BlackBerry device that will bring back its traditional trackpad] is an important part but it’s not the only part. Very early in my career here I talked about re-pivoting back to the enterprise. It implies not only the devices but also the enterprise using our software and server as the backbone. When BlackBerry was doing well almost everyone was running on BlackBerry enterprise server. When we lost our focus we lost quite a bit of traction and accounts. But the reason I went back to the Classic is that a tremendous number of customers want it.
In light of that “return to roots,” how do you view innovation at BlackBerry? What role does it play today?
The guiding principle of our development teams is that everybody is focused on the following pillars: security, privacy, productivity, and collaboration. We focus on all of those. For example, on BBM [BlackBerry Messenger] we just released the timed message feature—people call it the “Snapchat feature.” We allow people to retract messages, not just to recall them. The whole design center is really focused on security, privacy, productivity and collaboration. We’re not trying to compete on everything.
Winning back developers is another aspect of returning to BlackBerry’s roots. How are you feeling about status with developer ecosystem?
There are only a handful of apps, like Facebook, that we build native. We are relying on our relationship with Amazon for the others. Everything that appears on Amazon’s app store you can run on BB10 [the latest version of BlackBerry’s operating system]. In doing so we free up our enterprise developer community to focus on developer platforms. On that front the re-pivoting is only six to nine months old since I came in. We have some good traction but still a lot of work to be done.
What about changing the culture and building up morale at BlackBerry? How have you re-pivoted internally too?
The traditional way for every CEO is to come in and talk about the vision; I tend to focus on execution. When morale is down and people are leaving you really need to make sure your execution is aligned. I am quite pleased that there are a lot of very loyal employees that have risen to the occasion. By returning to the roots they not only feel comfortable, but they surely understand it. The stability has to come from not only public opinion but by making money. So I’m very focused on making money. You can’t keep their morale high if they keep looking over their shoulder and wondering if there will be layoffs. I took the bold statement of telling the company that we’re done with the layoffs. I don’t want to give the impression that morale’s great. But it will be great. I expect the crossover point to happen next year, and we will turn around and make ourselves profitable. Without the results it’s hard to turn around people’s morale.
What’s up with Kim Kardashian and BlackBerry? The reality TV star recently told a tech conference audience that she hoards BlackBerrys. How much do you love her right now?
I don’t know the lady. Every time there is a die-hard fan, especially someone as well known as she is, that spontaneously and unprompted says she loves BlackBerry, I love it. I just don’t know how to connect to her. Of course I love it.