BlackBerry boss talks NFC, Android, Apple and PlayBook

While Apple with the iPhone and Google with its Android platform get plenty of coverage in the press, RIM’s BlackBerry phones were still the number one selling smartphone in the UK in January 2011.

It’s not surprising. There are over 55 million BlackBerry subscribers globally. And while that number is almost half that Apple claims it has sold in iPhones, that figure represents people that are actually paying for their phone to be active and connected to the BlackBerry servers, rather than sitting in a draw gathering dust because their owner has upgraded to the latest model.

We sat down with Stephen Bates, the UK managing director at RIM, to talk Nokia, NFC, Android on BlackBerry, and why the PlayBook will, says RIM, change everything:

Is it frustrating that Nokia didn’t reference you when it announced it was adopting Windows Phone 7?

"We love it. Fundamentally we are at a good point in our journey. We’ve made good progress. What’s funny is the amount of advertising and the amount of noise doesn’t correlate to the amount of business. Just one look at the sales data tells you one story versus what’s being talked about in the market. Being number one in six EU markets is a good benchmark. This is a massively expanding market and we are going to grow and will continue to do what we do: build our eco-system, develop value for all of our partners and create momentum around a sustainable business for the long term.

"This market is moving and changing very rapidly and we are trying to help shape it. We are in a fortuitous position to be one of the leaders in shaping this market, especially in the next phase we are going to see."

So what's the next phase?

"The tablet is really just an execution of a need we all have. There’s a lot of talk about apps. Apps are important, but that devalues the fundamental elements. Mobile is about communicating. The whole reason smartphones exist is this collision between mobility and the Internet. We want to consume the Internet on a mobile device. That’s what has caused this phenomenon that we are seeing in smartphones.

"We think one of the bigger drivers is social networks. Apps are important, but social networking shouldn't be ignored.

"The fundamental reason BlackBerry has been so successful is that we’ve delivered on two key points. We’ve delivered the ultimate communications platform and delivered on being the best at social networking. Which is why we’ve got more people on Twitter on BlackBerry than anyone else. Even Facebook says we are the most engaged mobile platform. People using Facebook on BlackBerry interact a lot more than they do on another platform.

"Why? Because we make that experience more interactive and immersive and that makes the experience better. We think that’s one of the big drivers in why we are where we are in the market today."

So are you the "Facebook phone" not HTC or Inq?

"I wouldn’t say that. I would say that we want to enable social networking. We believe social networking is an important element within a mobile context. We have very good Facebook interaction, we have a very good Twitter interaction, we have a very good MySpace interaction, we’ve got our own social network - BBM.

"To us it’s not about one social network, it's about all of them having as good an experience as possible, so whatever your flavour of social networking you get it better on BlackBerry than anywhere else.

"Moving forward there is content and media. People want more than just social networking. They want to consume content. People are doing that with their smartphone, but the challenge you have with media is the size of the screen.

"This is why we think tablets have started to come to the forefront of the scene. At CES and MWC we launched a number of connection variants of the PlayBook: Wi-Fi only, HSDPA, 4G; and we think tablets will be a really important form factor to help deal with this third collision of media, Internet, and mobility,allowing you to consume content in a different way.

"We think we will bring a uniqueness to this market. We have a loyal base of BlackBerry users that are used to multitasking, to push architecture, and we want to accelerate and accentuate their experience of BlackBerry as a platform using the PlayBook.

"We also want to give you the Internet as it's supposed to be. The Internet that you get used to on your laptop, on your Mac, your pc, or your desktop. That full, rich media experience. Most of the media content on the web is Flash. HTML 5 is coming, but Flash will be here for a long time.

"With QNX they’ve had a deeply integrated Adobe Air development for the last 7 years so it's natively integrated to support Adobe Air, Flash 10.1 and HTML 5, which means we can now present you the Internet on a mobile device as it was meant to be, not re-rendered through something, and not a mobile website that you get with some other people."

But do we really need Flash?

"To enjoy the web like you do at your desktop. Yes. We give you a whole new development environment that allows you to port Flash to the PlayBook very quickly. We have a platform that gives you not only a full rich web experience, but taps into that whole web development market. It means that not only can people develop stuff for the web, but also a mobile computing device at the same time."

Is this an attempt to combat a lack of apps in BlackBerry App World?

"This is about delivering the ultimate mobile computing platform. We've got a multi-threaded, multi-core, multi-processing platform with a very high-value HD video interactive capability and for us it’s about linking that into the web so we can deliver a really solid experience."

That’s a very different experience to your phones?

"Not necessarily. You can consume experience media on your smartphone, but it's a compromised experience. We think we will see a shift from media consumption on smartphones to tablets, and the smartphone could become the ultimate communications device again where you just check your email and make phone calls.

"You are potentially seeing a shift where you may have two devices again. You may have this [PlayBook] and a smartphone again."

Is that based on learning from previous products like the Storm series that didn't do so well?

"We think that smartphones are a good size up to about 4-inches. The PlayBook’s 7-inch screen gives you the best mix between the two. Using WebWorks you’ll be able to develop for both OSes at the same time.

"We will have QNX handsets in the future. Think of this as a journey for us. This is a set of technology. For us we have multiple pieces that we will evolve in the future."

Can you put an end to the rumours – Will you be able to run Android apps on BlackBerry?

"We haven’t announced anything..."

("We aren’t commenting on that", says his PR guardian following our question based on the idea that the BlackBerry PlayBook to be Android appy?)

"We aren’t even sure the video is kosher..."

("There is nothing to add", she reaffirms)

"It’s a very exciting market...We are trying to keep our focus on what we are doing."

So when is the PlayBook coming?

"End of Q1 for US. Europe is Q2. UK will be one of the early ones."

Why the reason for the staggered launch?

"We had one for Torch and it worked quite nicely. The staggered launch for Torch worked really well for us."

What about different sized PlayBooks like Samsung is doing with the Galaxy Tab?

"It’s less about the size, and more what you do with it. What’s important for us is not that we have a range of sizes, but that we have a use case that gives a good user experience.

"From that we will decide whether that creates a need for different form factors. What we learnt from smartphones is that how people use it and interact with it is more important than the form factor.

"For us let’s prove it out, let's deliver that value, and then see."

RIM confirmed at MWC that it was adding NFC to its smartphones in the future, what’s the plan?

"NFC is just a piece of technology. Fundamentally this is about an eco-system of partners and the market. And for us having a use case and a consumer that wants to use it. We think that the time is getting ready for it.

"We want to put all the building blocks in place so when NFC does come along we have a content system and a payment system in place that works for everybody. That’s why we think that the timing to bring out that technology is now good.

"We think the importance of the eco-system shouldn’t be underestimated. This market is evolving and nobody knows where it is going. But what we do know is that if you keep a healthy eco-system you’ll have a longer lasting eco-system. If we cut people out of that system, that creates an unnatural event and we want to value some of the key players of our eco-system be it content producers, or carriers."

That's very different to Apple and Google's goal of owning the customer and turning the operator into a "dumb pipe"

"We think working with the carrier is a better solution. If you look at the mobile network the assets they have are huge. They know where you are, they have a billing relationship with you. It’s easy for them to communicate and interact with you. A good way to use that relationship for example, is if I am walking down the street and let’s say I’ve subscribed to Starbucks payment capability, it pushes you a little note to say: 'ah, you are 50 yards away from one of our stores, do you want your normal latte?', you say, 'yes', pay with NFC and you walk out.

"The operator has added value by knowing where you are and interacting with you as well as making the billing system simple. Using NFC in a BlackBerry coupled with a carrier bill to make that seamless and easy as possible. There are plenty of money opportunities here for everyone. The operator gets involved, the store gets involved, and our system facilitates the whole experience."

So when is it coming?

"NFC will take time to develop. The opportunities are quite vast, we want to encourage development within our eco-system to get payments moving, we get ticketing moving, we get Secure ID moving, social media interactions so you can connect rather than just doing a "bump". So we think there is a whole host of things that we are trying to stimulate within our developer community to get involved and get connected to.

"BBM gifting is one way of doing that. It allows us to set the scene of a concept whereby we use BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) as a mechanism to be apart of that value change.

"Because of the receipt capabilities of BBM, you can have traceability of your actions, which is what people want. We think an example of this that is really exciting is that you’ll be able to gift a top up to another phone that can then be charged back to my carrier bill. That’s the stuff that we think is really exciting."

When will we be able to do that?

"We would like to see early implications of this by the end of the year to the 35 million current BBM subscribers.

"We think that the 2012 Olympic games will be a good catalyst for NFC. It’s not a ticketless games, but it's a good step on the journey to getting people used to NFC, and how to go about making their life easier by using the technology. It certainly gives everyone a focus."

What's next?

The interview comes to an end and we turn our voice recorder off, but keep talking. Bates tells us how the OSes will eventually merge and that QNX has plenty of potential going forward. He also talks about how QNX is the main technology backbone in hundreds of cars from multiple manufacturers. Nothings confirmed, but it's clear that RIM is looking to see how it can bring the power of its current systems to the automotive space. 

We ask whether that means the PlayBook is going to replace the dashboard. We get a no - it's not the right size - but we can see a glint in the man's eye that suggests RIM has lots in store when it comes to enabling your phone to talk to your car; and way beyond just using Bluetooth so you can go hands free or letting you play music. 

QNX is clearly the new jewel in the RIM collection and one that it believes will let it continue to retain that number one spot for many years to come. It might not have "apps" in the same number or popularity as Apple, but it does have the potential to offer plenty more besides.