Interview: Rob Orr, UK managing director, BlackBerry

UK managing director of BlackBerry Rob Orr talks about the launch of the BlackBerry 10 operating system (OS) and Z10 handset

This has been your big week with the launch of BlackBerry 10. How has the industry reaction been?

It has been amazing, mind blowing even. I spent some time in retail stores on Thursday after the launch listening to the store staff and how pumped and excited they were. There is just this buzz of excitement all around.

Also the response of the market has been very positive. The day after the launch, I had dozens of calls from C-level executives inside our corporate customer organisations saying “I want one immediately!”

You feel it, you can feel the energy and you can feel a vibe in the air. It is really nice. Every employee is in that mindset.

So, has there been a sigh of relief after the big bet you placed – and still have placed – on the success of BlackBerry 10?

There has been a lot of work over a considerable amount of time. It was a couple of years ago we made the decision to take our own path with a new platform.

We knew a lot of what we were doing, but now to be able to say why we have made these decisions and to see the response of consumers, people actually picking up the device and saying I love that. It makes everything we have gone through in the last two years pale into insignificance.

You chose the UK as the first country to get BlackBerry 10 on the flagship Z10 handset. Why was that?

The UK is a very strong market for us. Globally, the UK is a very important market anyway. We have very strong relationships with the carriers and the retailers. UK carriers jumped on board in unison quite quickly. The product is important for them on the market and the stars just aligned for me to take the plunge and go first, which for me on a personal level is great.

But we have a big base of customers in the UK, both on the enterprise and consumer sides, and a diverse range of segments that we address. We have completely redesigned the platform which has been built for hyper-connected people and there are lots of people in the UK that speak to that.

As you say, you have both consumer and enterprise customers of BlackBerry in the UK. Is it weighted either way?

We don’t break it out, but one of the things we have done with the platform is we have tried with BlackBerry Balance – my favourite feature – to allow me to switch between corporate and consumer Rob. That function removes the enterprise persona. That is very unique.

But one of the few criticisms of the launch of BlackBerry 10 from enterprises was it seemed very consumer focused. How would you respond to that?

What you should have seen at the launch was a number of CIOs speaking about what BES 10 and our mobility management means to them in the context of BlackBerry 10. So, what isn’t necessarily as visible as the big launch, is the stuff the team has been doing behind the scenes working with enterprises.

We have spent six months making sure they understand where we have been going with the software from an enterprise perspective and making sure we solidify our position as the leader in enterprise mobility management – which we are by some way globally with 95% of the FTSE companies, government, police forces using our platform.

There is a lot of focus on the handset because that is what people see, that is the tactile thing people buy, but behind the scenes there has been masses of work to get this ready for enterprises.

The device and the platform may have got all the attention but I can assure you, it is all sat underneath, and the response I have got from enterprise has been incredible. The phones ran off the hook the day after launch with the influencers and our corporate customers demanding products.

We are here at BlackBerry Jam with some of the developers responsible for the 70,000 apps ready at launch for BlackBerry 10. It is still a long way behind the stores of Apple or Google though. How can you ever catch up?

There is a lot of focus on the handset because that is what people see, that is the tactile thing people buy, but behind the scenes there has been masses of work to get this ready for enterprises

Rob Orr, UK managing director, BlackBerry

With the best will in the world, you can never get every developer on the planet lined up to a specific date – 30 January was just the starting line, it wasn’t an end point. 

Since launching, we have been adding thousands and thousands of apps on a daily basis and that will continue. An event like this, that is completely sold out and full of developers who have given up two or three days of their time to come here shows our commitment to the developers and how we are engaging. It is a vibrant ecosystem.

I am not worried. The apps will continue to come. I am most excited the types of apps and what we can do to differentiate apps. We have got all the tools to do it. That is the beauty of what we have done and the work that has gone in to engineering the platform. We are in a very good position.

Do you think it is fair to say that BlackBerry’s previous lack of a strong developer community was one of the main reasons it has struggled in the past few years?

I think if you look at the decision we took to build this new platform, it was taken two years ago. That means introspectively we recognised what we had to do; go out to the developers and ask them want they wanted and what they needed from us for us to be an engaging platform.

What we have always known is developers make good money on our platform, making more revenue per user on BBOS than on iOS or Android, so we have the building blocks, the users, deployments with all these enterprise customers, we just needed to take it to the next level.

That is what the last few days have been about. Showing everyone globally what we can do and that is going to bring momentum.

People that we only spoke to a few months ago, now seeing where we are, are re-engaging which is really positive for us.

What about hardware? You only launched two devices with BlackBerry 10, so why was that decision made?

Well, with BlackBerry 10, the platform is a gesture-based system and that is best showcased on a touchscreen device. If you have all this high-quality content, you want to do that on a LCD that showcases it properly [the Z10].

By the same token, our keyboard users are incredibly loyal, so it is important to build a physical keyboard device [the Q10], though what was also important was to build the best virtual keyboard to show we have leadership in that sector, like we do in the physical.

In terms of timings, product schedules are never fixed. Would you do more than two handsets? No, I don’t think that would be the right thing to do. What I think we have got is an incredible starting point and what we have been clear about is we will launch handsets across all segments over the course of time.

What is obviously missing from the line-up is a tablet. Is one being designed to also showcase BlackBerry 10?

BlackBerry 10 is a platform. The platform is the tool that we have built to enable mobile computing and drive that innovation. Clearly a tablet form factor is important in mobile computing, but I am stopping my answer there.

Would you ever consider moving from the likes of the 10-inch BlackBerry PlayBook to compete in the budget seven-inch devices that are proving so popular?

What is important is as these tools evolve we continue to listen to what our customers want, so we have a much more active dialogue with customers today than we have even had. As this shapes and changes over the medium to long term, we will deliver the form factor they want.

The PlayBook was very successful in the run up to Christmas [BlackBerry cut the price significantly]. It is an incredibly good product, people bought it in large volumes and are still buying it across the UK. We have seen a number of our major corporate customers starting to engage in pretty significant technology pilots and investigation around these.

Will original PlayBooks be able to get BlackBerry 10?

Yes. We will keep you informed of when in due course.

What is BlackBerry’s opinion to partnering? Many would love to see BlackBerry 10 on other manufacturer’s handsets. Is it something BlackBerry would do?

Job number one was to build the platform. Job number two was to showcase it on a touch device and a traditional BlackBerry keyboard device, which we have done.

Thorsten [Heins, CEO of BlackBerry] has been very clear that we would conduct a very thorough and full review of our business, how we operate and what the future of the business looks like. That is an ongoing process.

No decisions have been made [as] the company was rigidly focused on launching the platform and the first two handsets. Beyond that, we haven’t made any decisions. There is no fixed date [or] time.

Before the launch of BlackBerry 10, there was a lot of talk about the company being sold. Is this an option also being looked at during the review?

I am not going to comment on the masses of rumours and speculation. Being on the inside and hearing all the speculation is just a distraction. We are focused on our platform and we are focused on getting the word out. Beyond that, I’ll let you know.

Thorsten has been very clear and very open about the fact that he and the board are conducting a very strategic review. That means you look at all options, but that is as far as we have got.

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