BlackBerry harnesses its strengths for IoT challenge May 22 2014

Project Ion will provide cloud-based device management, security and analytics, with a QNX apps ecosystem

By Caroline Gabriel

BlackBerry's CEO John Chen clings to the firm's once-iconic smartphones, in the teeth of all the reasons why the company should focus its whole attention on back end systems, the enterprise messaging and device management services in which it still excels. To be fair, Chen is managing expectations ably, emphasizing the long term and looking for new opportunities - among which, the internet of things is clearly a prime candidate.

BlackBerry has unveiled a set of initiatives under the umbrella codename of Project Ion. The IoT may be the refuge for every firm which is struggling in the mobile market, but in BlackBerry's case, they can offer something that is genuinely needed, turning its device management capabilities - already transformed to support multivendor platform - from smartphones to 'things'.

Project Ion is somewhat vague for now, and the full platform will not be released until next February, but its overall objective will be to create an open cloud-based platform to support device management and rich analytics of data derived from embedded objects. Businesses will be able to access and analyze information from huge numbers of varied sources and turn it into actions, using a mixture of open source and third party tools, all held together by BlackBerry's framework.

This will be powered by BlackBerry's two remaining crown jewels - its enterprise mobility management system, now a cloud-based offering; and QNX, the platform which it acquired initially to underpin its marginalized BB10 operating system. Despite that failure, QNX, whose history is in the automotive sector, has significant potential in other areas. BlackBerry has already talked up its opportunities in the connected car, and now it will harness QNX to create a broader IoT offering built around a secure public applications platform.

The key will be to support common web tools so that developers can adopt QNX for its security and other credentials, without having to learn specialized skills. QNX already exists in devices like cars, but BlackBerry will also open up its documentation, or even open source elements of QNX, to make it easier for programmers to write for gadgets that can talk back to the QNX cloud.

BlackBerry is using the Cassandra database, which it says it optimized for data writes and for consolidating masses of data in many formats into a single structure. Other open source tools in use include Kafka, for getting data in and out of Cassandra; Apache Solr for search; and Vert.x for programming. Programmers can use C languages, JSON, Node and other common tools.

This will be a key difference between the mobile and the IoT markets - the former is moving to OS-neutral, cloud-oriented technologies such as HTML5 slowly from its native OS starting point, while many IoT systems can go open from the start, allowing all kinds of new operating systems to participate.

This will be especially important in enterprise and industrial areas. Google is working hard to make sure Android remain at the heart of the IoT developer ecosystem for consumer services, but the early growth will lie in vertical segments, where the tools are far more fragmented.

While IoT cloud services, including device management and data analytics, will be highly competitive areas, BlackBerry has some genuine advantages, including surviving loyalty in many enterprise sectors, and strong security technologies. However, it knows that the old model of fully controlling its platform is gone, and this will be a more open affair, with the firm looking to build the compulsory 'IoT ecosystem' of partners, operators and developers.

Perhaps the most impactful attempt to bring together all those disparate groups in an enterprise-focused platform is GE's Industrial Internet Consortium, and BlackBerry has duly joined that initiative, and could be a valuable contributor to its efforts. The firm pointed out that is is also a founding member of the Application Developer Alliance, which focuses on challenges of security and privacy for developers.

Alec Saunders, VP of cloud at BlackBerry, launched the project at the O'Reilly Solid conference in San Francisco and urged developers to sign up - a select group will have access to the technologies next month. Saunders said in an interview with GigaOM: "We have stolen liberally from open source software in computing and networking that has been going on in the last couple of years. Many of them didn't exist in the form we are using them in, 18 months ago."

As well as end-to-end security, BlackBerry is planning other ways to differentiate itself from start-ups like Xiveley and the big enterprise service providers. Saunders spoke about context awareness, a big trend in consumer IoT and analytics - for instance, being able to access the right information about a car, depending on who is asking for it.

Chen said in a statement: "Billions of connections, generating trillions of transactions and exabytes of data daily, will require platforms that can operate securely on a global scale. No other company is in a better position than BlackBerry to provide the technological building blocks, applications and services needed to enhance productivity, improve real time decision making and deliver on the vision of the Internet of Things."