Why Blackberry is not quite dead yet

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What's going on in Canada, eh?

Toronto is being run by a wild man -- Mayor Rob Ford just admitted to smoking crack during a “drunken stupor" -- and one of the country's leading technology lights has got not just a black eye, but a black berry (yes, I went there). No longer hooked on the Crackberry, the world has moved on to iPhones and Android handsets.

The 1990's CEOs of Blackberry are gone, and their 2012 successor, Thorsten Heins, has just stepped down after the company once valued at over $67 billion couldn't find a buyer for less than $5 billion. So what the heck should they do now, call in the Mounties?

Fortunately, Blackberry has a secret weapon -- if only they realize it.

The smartphone revolution is already over. While the market isn't yet fully saturated, most companies are competing to sell handsets to the bottom half of the market, which means smartphones are becoming a commodity with little differentiation and narrowing margins. But Blackberry has a significant play in the next major technological revolution: the automobile.

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Back in 2010, Blackberry purchased a little known Ottawa-based company called QNX Software Systems (Canadians are so modest). Ostensibly, the idea was to use QNX's operating system software to power a growing panoply of Blackberry devices, including a tablet computer (we all know how that went). But QNX's real strength, indeed what it's famous for in the tech world, is what's in the car.

QNX has primarily been an embedded systems software company, creating the sort of programs that are used in factories, power plants, and routers. It is also in millions of dashboards supporting systems from the likes of OnStar and Delphi. Companies like Panasonic use QNX to power parts of their in-car systems around the world. Research and development departments from automakers like Mercedes-Benz are working with QNX on new telematics systems and controls. And QNX already has experience working with traffic management systems and navigation partners.

The automobile business is about to undergo a transformation so radical it will change the very nature of the transportation infrastructure. Every single major automaker is working on autonomous vehicles and semi-autonomous cars. Self-driving cars are already legal (for testing) in several states, and the potential advantages they offer are staggering, ranging from fuel savings to reducing traffic congestion to reaching the eventual goal of zero road fatalities.

Such a transformation will take years and require a supporting communications infrastructure that allows cars to recognize and talk to each other in real time (so-called vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V communications). It will mean that cars will warn each other of hazards over hill and dale, automatically preventing accidents and re-routing vehicles to avoid everything from black ice to traffic tie-ups. In a few years, generations will look back at us driving our own cars and think, how stupid was that?

Blackberry's got $1 billion dollars in new investment coming in from several firms now. Hopefully they won't waste it on another tablet or phone and end up like Palm. In the automotive world, there is no de facto software standard, no firm leader in the connected car and autonomous car space -- which means it's ready for the next digital gold rush.

What Blackberry needs to do is stake its claim to the car -- before Google or Apple comes along and corners the market again.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.