Blackphone: Privacy People WANT To Buy

Read a history of the Blackberry and a product comparison with Blackphone.

Dear Privacy Enthusiast,

On July 11, our friends at Blackberry posted an article about, of all things, us! The piece goes to some effort to suggest that BP1 is “consumer-grade”, and therefore “inadequate” for business users. Setting aside the fact that we think consumers deserve the same security as companies, we weren’t surprised the piece extols the virtues of Blackberry’s own solutions at our expense.

Blackberry was a huge, defining brand in our industry. Nobody can question the success they achieved following the release in 2003 of the 72xx series, which was their first proper smartphone. They cost $200 (roughly $615 in 2014 dollars) and soon became the must-have executive accessory, driving device and BES license sales worldwide. They were revolutionary products. I personally owned an even older device — a 957 — and used several of its descendants over the years. Nowadays, the only thing sustaining them is the inertia of their remaining enterprise and government customers, but that too will eventually come to rest while we and others continue to win over those accounts.

Unfortunately, the world discovered in 2010 that RIM was willing to compromise its integrity if sufficient pressure was applied by governments intent on spying on the messages sent via the ubiquitous devices. Various statements from the Saudi, UAE, Indian, and other telecom regulatory bodies all confirmed the same thing: RIM made it technically possible for the formerly-secret encrypted messages to be decrypted and viewed. Much speculation surrounds exactly what was done, and whether it remains in place today, but if anything there was more than one approach which achieved the same basic goal: a betrayal of the objectives of privacy.

That, along with the restrictive platform architecture, lack of widespread adoption by third parties, and shifting priorities among large enterprise customers, all closed the book on RIM, and the precipitous decline in its fortunes — well-documented by the press — began. Now we have Blackberries which run Android apps (of which there are >40x more than legacy BB apps), BES environments which manage Apple and Android devices, and all the fanfare of the Playbook, Z10, Q10, and other devices which simply didn’t sell. And everyone you see in an airport, or at a meeting, or on a train, is generally still using Apple, Android, and now, Blackphone. Passport is likely the last chance to reinvigorate the Blackberry hardware business; otherwise they will probably shift entirely towards MDM, where they are already at a disadvantage once multi-platform capabilities are taken into account.

These are, we’ll remind you, the same circumstances which have seen Blackberry’s adjusted share price drop from $230 (in July 2007) to $11.51 as of July 11 2014. That’s over a 95% decline during that period, and if we used the lowest recent price of $5.44, it’s almost a 98% drop. In the past five years, the drop is still almost 83%, and that’s including the recent bump following Blackberry’s announcement that, at last, they’re opening up their own Blackberry Enterprise Server to manage the devices people actually buy: namely, iOS and Android.

The substance of Blackberry’s recent post (which you can — and should — read here) tries to make the fact that we have only the BP1 device on the market a liability. This is a short-sighted and misleading suggestion, for two main reasons:

  • While it is indeed our first hardware product, the interplay between Blackphone’s platform and Silent Circle encrypted communications suggests we’re striking a chord with the market; and
  • We offer features and extensibility which simply aren't available on Blackberry.

The most obvious one is encrypted voice communications to Blackphone, Android, iOS, and almost any traditional phone number. We include Silent Phone and Silent Text on every Blackphone, and they can be managed by the Silent Circle Management Console. The tool is a licensing and provisioning system which enterprises can use to manage their deployed secure comms subscriptions across the employee base. And as of last week, you can now buy a Global Dial capability — the Global Encrypted Calling Plans — which gives every Blackphone and Silent Circle user the ability to make calls to landlines in 79 countries, and mobile numbers in 41, all for a fixed monthly fee that’s much less expensive than any alternatives. That’s in addition to the unlimited use of the Silent Circle network for placing secure, peer-to-peer encrypted calls between Silent Phone users anywhere in the world.

Why is that important? Because it’s strictly a peer-to-peer system, even if a foreign government demanded we somehow allow them to eavesdrop on our customers, the technical truth is we couldn’t do it. The network doesn’t have a central control point which enterprises, governments, or individual users must depend upon. This improves security and reduces cost and complexity. You can provision and start using Silent Phone in minutes on any Blackphone, Android, or iOS device, anywhere in the world. BBM Voice only lets you talk to other BBM users after being provisioned by a BES, and who knows exactly what might happen when those chats go through the same data center architecture that allowed text messages to be viewed by anyone who asked?

For situations where centralized tracking is required, such as in regulated industries with employer-issued devices, we’ll support the efforts of any MDM vendor who wants to adapt their sandboxing clients to work on PrivatOS, so long as we don’t have to yield on our underlying security principles. We’ve already been contacted by several of those vendors and supplied test devices to them.

This touches upon a key point: our approach is attractive because the technology and architecture of the Blackphone ecosystem is more flexible, more transparent, and more usable. Closed systems — like BES and Mr. McGarvey’s beloved EMM approach — are not attuned to how most enterprises are deploying mobility solutions today. Certainly, there are cases where centralized management and policy tools are useful (hence our openness to MDM, as mentioned above), but there are plenty of other ways to keep sensitive data ‘behind the server’ which don’t limit you to BB10 smartphones or the BES infrastructure.

The whole point of Blackphone is privacy, choice, and control. This puts the ability to make those decisions back into the hands of the device owner. If it’s a private individual, then they control the whole spectrum of decisions. If it’s a company, then the company chooses what to permit its employees to do with company-owned equipment. But we reject outright the argument that an end-to-end approach is the only viable choice, because it’s that same approach which allowed Blackberry to betray its customers and jettison its credibility.

And because Blackphone’s PrivatOS is built on a familiar core — Android 4.4.2+ — we’re not asking people to adopt a failed and dying platform in order to have maximum interoperability with an MDM. You’ll soon see announcements about Blackphone’s MDM plans. If you’re following some of the press, you already know we’re planning a family of devices, including a tablet, and that we are firm believers in the need for our devices to play nicely with a variety of ecosystems. We validate our security credentials with our policy on transparency, our commitment to open source review, and our soon-to-launch policies on incident response and customer notification, including guidelines for responsible disclosure on vulnerabilities.

We enjoy the aggregate benefits of a global community of Android developers and their world-class efforts to push the envelope with innovations. And, of course, we are investing heavily ourselves on PrivatOS and everything we dream it will become.

Some of these things aren’t ready yet, but remember — we only announced ourselves to the world this past January 15, and revealed the product on February 24. Think how far we’ve come in such a short time, and what might be around the corner — we’re pretty sure Blackberry’s already wondering about it. In the meantime, we’ll spend our time innovating and growing due to our adoption by carriers and Fortune 1000 customers (including 27 of the Fortune 50, plus 11 international governments) will continue, instead of slinging mud with our Canadian friends. We just felt that, in this instance, it was worth setting the record straight.

P.S. For a bit of additional reading, a few recent articles about Blackberry:

10 Brands That Will Disappear In 2015

John Chen has done amazing work reducing the waste of his predecessor, but there aren’t any private jets left to sell

68% of phones Blackberry sells are the BB7/Bold products from 2009-11

John Chen puts Blackberry’s recovery chances at no better than 50:50