BlackBerry CEO trumpets management, marketing at user conference

Unveils low-end phone, BlackBerry Messenger for iOS and Android

It took two hours for three BlackBerry executives to announce four items: a routine software update, a new low-end qwerty smartphone aimed at overseas markets, a new feature for BlackBerry Messenger, and Messenger's extension to iOS and Android.

Some of the most enthusiastic applause was for BlackBerry's "creative director," the singer Alicia Keys, who appeared onstage at the annual BlackBerry Live user conference in Orlando. She announced the BlackBerry Scholars program, aimed at women in accredited technical and science programs with a focus on mobile computing.

[ RELATED: 10 things BlackBerry Z10 does that iPhone can't ]

Most of the rest of the time was devoted to talking about the new senior executives hired by BlackBerry CEO Thorstein Heins over the past 12 months, a rehash of the January launch of BlackBerry 10 and of the first two phones to run it, a recycled Consumer Electronics Show demonstration of a "concept car" with a built-in infotainment hub, and a numbingly detailed explanation by Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben of his marketing strategy and why it has been successful.

Separately, the company announced two changes for its enterprise software products. First is a new release of BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10, Version 10.1, which has a number of new features:

  • several new policy settings and controls to restrict the use of a corporately owned BlackBerry 10 smartphone for work only
  • simplified server installation for managing a mixed population of BlackBerry 10, legacy BlackBerry OS, iOS and Android devices; and for upgrading to Version 10.1 from the previous BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5
  • new graphical views of information and statistics on employees' mobile devices, such as summaries of devices by OS and carrier, their degree of compliance and downloaded applications
  • a high-availability configuration where an active BES 10 server can be paired with a passive server that waits on standby in case the active server fails

The second enterprise announcement is BlackBerry Enterprise Instant Messenger (IM) 3.0, which now creates an encrypted end-to-end link to protect BlackBerry 10 smartphones connecting through Microsoft Lync, Microsoft Office Communication Server or IBM Lotus Sametime. The client app on the smartphone, working with BES 10, supports presence, one-to-one and multi-party IM, and can switch between text chat and a voice call.

BlackBerry Q5

Credit: BlackBerry

The new BlackBerry Q5 smartphone

Heins repeatedly stressed that BlackBerry, with its new operating system, is focused on creating a "platform" that will both enable and adapt to the still-evolving world of mobile work and play. But there was little new information about these ambitions, except for the announcement of the third Blackberry 10 smartphone.

The new BlackBerry Q5 smartphone is the first product extension of the platform. With it, BlackBerry is reaching into the low-priced end of the market, though Heins said nothing about the final price or even a price range for the new phone. The Q5 appears to be simply a cheaper version of the Q10, with a 3.1-inch diagonal color touch screen and full qwerty keyboard. Buyers will have a choice of red, white, black or pink. No other specs were announced.

Recycling a demo from January's CES, Heins showed off a new Bentley Continental GT convertible with a big, built-in center-mounted touch screen, providing an array of entertainment, navigation and communications apps and services. The system was created by Bentley and BlackBerry's QNX subsidiary, which developed the real-time operating system widely used in automotive systems today and also the basis of BlackBerry 10.

It's unclear whether the system was running BlackBerry 10 or QNX CAR, which is an HTML5 framework for leveraging consumer apps for in-vehicle infotainment systems. One feature, which also was seen previously at CES, was a video chat using BlackBerry Messenger, between a Z10 smartphone user and the car's occupants. If the car begins to move, the system automatically closes down the video link but maintains the audio link.

The news most enthusiastically received by the BlackBerry fans was about BlackBerry Messenger, the company's popular messaging system. Heins announced that Messenger would now let users create, discover and subscribe to channels -- in effect, specialized groups of Messenger users. Messages can be sent and received, and notifications set, just by members of a given group, permitting conversations and content sharing around specific topics, brands or other content.

BBM Channels is now available in beta for BlackBerry 10 smartphones, and for smartphones running BlackBerry 5 OS through 7.1.

And in a move long advocated by Messenger users, Heins said that BlackBerry Messenger will be available as a free app for iOS 6 and for Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). The apps, available this summer, will allow messaging between users of three different mobile operating systems. Initially, the apps will provide basic messaging, but Heins promised that BlackBerry will supply video chat and other features if supported by iOS and Android through the rest of the year.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. @johnwcoxnww john_cox@nww.com

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