BlackBerry taps India-based start-ups to reinvent itself
New Delhi: Two years ago, when BlackBerry Ltd, came out with its personal assistant app Viki, much like Apple’s Siri and Google Now, it created a flutter in the industry. The app, exclusive to the BlackBerry 10 operating system, used artificial intelligence and natural language processing to learn about a user’s individual preferences and personalize search results over a period of time.
Start-up Agrima Infotech Pvt. Ltd, which developed the app, was part of a developer ecosystem that the Canadian firm had started putting together in 2012 in India. Today, the ecosystem is 35,000-strong and the Waterloo, Ontario-based company is tapping around 600 start-ups through its innovation centre Rubus Labs based in Kochi’s Startup Village, an incubator for telecom start-ups.
BlackBerry plans to leverage this network as part of its global strategy to move on from a closed platform that only provided services for BlackBerry devices to a software and services provider for devices across platforms, including Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
In this process, India has emerged as a sort of research base for the company. In September, BlackBerry acquired UK-based start-up Movirtu, which came out with a SIM virtualization technology which allows multiple phone numbers to be active on a single SIM. Today, the research and development team of this technology is based in its Noida facility and the company plans to leverage this technology to make it easier for enterprises to manage devices in BYOD (bring-your-own-device) and COPE (corporate-owned, personally-enabled) environments.
In mid-2012, BlackBerry set up a technology centre-cum-innovation lab, Rubus Labs, in Kochi’s Startup Village, which had come up earlier that year. India is the first country in the Asia-Pacific region and one of the four countries globally where the firm has set up technology centres since late 2011. The other three locations are US, South Africa and Indonesia, each catering to different requirements pertaining to the region.
“Rubus Labs is our innovation centre in India where we encourage engineering students and young professionals to come and innovate by providing them the BlackBerry platform to develop solutions,” said Annie Mathew, director, alliances and business development, BlackBerry India. “The number of developers has grown from less than 4,000 to more than 30,000 over a period of three years”, she said, adding that the company also leverages around 600 start-ups registered with the Kochi Startup Village.
Major focus areas for these app developers and start-ups include the Internet of Things (IoT)—a network of physical objects that can connect to the Internet to talk to other connected devices; and machine-to-machine—which is an automated exchange of information between machines.
“A lot of software, services we are rolling out works on Android, iOS, Windows and BlackBerry. So, virtually any smartphone user who is using these platforms is a potential BlackBerry customer. This is the fundamental shift in strategy,” said Sunil Lalvani in an interview with Mint in early May, before he stepped down as BlackBerry India’s managing director. “Our India strategy actually resonates what’s happening globally. As a company, we are pivoting again to our corporate roots.”
“The apps and solutions being developed are for the global market largely. They have at times hit the top 10 to top 25 mark in downloads worldwide,” Mathew said, adding that more than 100 applications have come out of BlackBerry’s innovation centre. “In enterprise, the SIs/ISVs (system integrators/independent software vendors) are targeting markets outside India with their solutions.”
Globally, in the IoT space, according to the company, the BlackBerry QNX operating system has enabled about 50 million cars in North America to securely communicate back to the central server about the health of the vehicles. The company is also working with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), US railroad systems and Cisco routers.
While on the one hand the company is looking at bringing IoT solutions to India from outside, with Rubus Labs, the plan is to “make in India but make for the world”, said Mathew.
Last year, the company showcased Gujarat-based start-up Hidden Brains, an enterprise web and mobile apps development company which works on machine-to-machine solutions. “A lot of work is being done by the company to integrate data in hospitals and make medical equipment communicate with other devices and provide doctors with a 360-degree view of the data gathered,” Mathew said.
She said developers are also working on developing an app that turns smartphone cameras on and off upon entering and leaving specific premises such as a factory. “A lot of enterprises and factories need to ensure that nothing is photographed inside. This can be done through an app,” she said.
The company is beefing up its enterprise business even as its consumer business is losing out, say experts. “BlackBerry is playing to its strengths by catering to enterprises than consumers. With dwindling smartphone market share, I expect BlackBerry to create niche applications and services that take advantage of its unique offerings of security and communication network,” said Rajat Agrawal, editor of BGR.in, the Indian avatar of BGR.com, one of the top electronics and gadget news websites in the US.