On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, BlackBerry CEO John Chen talks about how the once-pioneering mobile phone company has happily pivoted into a new business model, focusing on enterprise security and embedded technology for connected cars.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone who actually had a BlackBerry in my hand when I was having my son 16 years ago, which was a really problematic thing for the doctors, but in my spare time, I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is John Chen, the CEO of BlackBerry. Before joining BlackBerry in 2013, he was the CEO of Sybase. He also serves on the boards of Disney, Wells Fargo and the National Committee on U.S. China Relations. We’ll have a lot to talk about there, John.
John Chen: Okay.
Welcome to Recode Decode.
So, we talked on the stage at the Code Conference — or All Things D, I guess, back then — when you got there, when you first got there. Let’s review your background really quickly for people who don’t know you. Then talk about what you’ve been doing at BlackBerry since.
Okay, my background. Well, I was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Hong Kong. Came over to the United States for school, went to Brown University for an electrical engineering degree. Went to CalTech for my masters in electrical engineering.
Pretty good places.
Decent schools. I started working in the United States as an engineer, designing microchips, microelectronics, for a company called Burroughs.
I remember Burroughs.
Then it became Unisys. I then left and went to a company called Pyramid Technology. As you know, in those days, when the Unix box was supposed to replace all the IBM mainframes at the time.
That was true.
The downsizing, the rightsizing movement, the open systems and all that. So, I went there, and then they sold that company to Siemens, being part of the Siemens Nixdorf board. Stayed at Siemens for a couple of years and worked out of Munich most of the time. That’s where my office was. It was actually pretty ... I always like to tell people I have the longest commute, San Jose to Munich, which I did travel back and forth a lot of the time.
Anyway, 1997, decided to return back to the Bay Area and ran into people at Sybase. And Sybase was troubled at the time and was a relational database company looking for the next chapter, so to speak. I like to call it the next chapter, I don’t like to call it a turnaround.
I know. I can’t wait to get to BlackBerry.
Anyway, so we did okay there, we were the first one that got into mobile and the mobile databases. Then sold it after 11 years later, sold it to SAP, a merger with SAP, at a pretty good return at the time. I stayed there for a couple years to help integrate it and then went to being an adviser for Silver Lake, the private equity firm.
That’s how they dragged you in, okay.
At Silver Lake, we look at all kinds of companies, including looking at BlackBerry ...
It was Research in Motion, right?
It was called Research in Motion.
I was looking at it as a potential tech private candidates.
And it didn’t work. The same year I did Dell, by the way. It didn’t work.
Why didn’t it work?
Well, it was a company that was losing market share, burning a lot of cash, there was no stability on the revenue, and so this is not a PE model whatsoever.
I got interested in the company, got spoken to — or recruited — a number of times.
What interested you? Obviously, BlackBerry was such an iconic company and it was Canada’s pride, of course, that it was up in Canada. Was it Waterloo?
Waterloo, that’s right.
The CEO had been onstage at our events a number of times, the founders. One of the things that struck me was that they sort of were really far out front early on, and then lost the race really quickly.
Right. Lots of technology.
In the early 2000s, right?
Yeah, lots of technology. I think 2009 was the best year ever, the company was like 80 billion in market cap, what today seems small but in those days were big.
80 billion, and I think the revenue was about 20 billion, so things were going relatively well at the time. What interested me in the company ...
Their messaging was way ahead of everybody else.
Yeah, the BlackBerry Messenger was way ahead of everybody. What really attracted me to the company’s technology, yes, it’s an iconic company and it’s not only iconic in Canada, it’s iconic globally.
On top of that, like everybody else, I grew up with BlackBerry, I had my ... I grew up with a pager, by the way, a RIM pager.
Right, the RIM pagers, so did I.
And then I grew up with BlackBerry.
It was called the crackberry.
They called it crackberry.
Still in Washington, it remains the crackberry.
Yeah, sorry. Exactly. I thought, in looking at technology and because I had an engineering background, I was really impressed with not only the technology know-how, but the patents, the way the innovation was being conducted, despite of the fact that the business fell apart ...
It’s a consumer business.
... for good reasons, but it was really a great technological company. I thought the world deserved ... This company deserves to be around.
I always look at companies and say, why is this company around? Is it deserving to be around?
It has a meaning.
Deserve to be around. So, you went there despite all ... You went there right in the face of a lot of headwinds at that point.
I think it was close to the end.
Yeah. There was a sale, it was all kinds of stuff.
Yeah. It was the sale and the bad part of it, it was the sale and no buyer. I thought it was like, “Oh, okay.” Here’s the thing: After I’d run Sybase for so many years, a public company, I kind of took the “running a public company, being a public company CEO,” off my bucket list, because I wasn’t going to do this anymore.
So, there were a number of companies calling me after we sold to SAP, and I find it ego satisfying, maybe I should use that word, but it wasn’t really exciting. I thought a lot of good people around could run decent companies, I wasn’t thinking about doing it anymore.
I actually thought about starting my own company or actually going into different areas, politics or writing a book or even teaching, for that matter. I wasn’t going to run another company, so to speak. When this case presented itself, I thought, A) it has a soft spot in my heart, being RIM, BlackBerry. B) the technology was very impressive, you still have a lot of impressive technology. C) I thought, “Hey, this is almost virtually impossible, maybe, and it’ll be fun to be able to do that.” At least I felt like ...
Now downside for you.
Yeah, the downside that my good friends tell me were, “If you stay there long enough and it failed, then it’s on you.”
Right, but if it didn’t ... When you got there, what did you want to do right away to stabilize it? Because I think a lot of Silicon Valley stories is all about the success, but it’s how you deal with crisis, and I think Facebook’s in that position right now, there’s crisis now. How did you stabilize the situation?
I did two things. The first very fundamental thing is that you have to stabilize the financials, but you take that as ... That’s survival, you take that aside. I think you need to have ...
How many employees did they have at the time?
You have to get the employees, I was just getting to the point, but you have to get the employees feeling that there is a future, that there is a level of confidence there. And you know you can’t run the same play because the same play is what got us here today, but that’s the most comfortable play.
What was the play?
Building more cellphones.
Right, or consumer, aiming at the consumer?
Aiming at the consumer. In fact, it’s really funny, BlackBerry never had a sales force aimed at the consumer. BlackBerry had a sales force that worked with all the telephone companies around the world. We do two things. A) we sell phones through them. B) we interconnect all the networks together, globally, around the world, and they’re done in a very secure fashion. Those are the two things that BlackBerry really does. There is not a sales force, there’s not a person calling on a bank, there’s not a person calling on an enterprise, it’s only that.
Even when we sold to the government, the government buys ... They buy through telecom, or T-Mobile in this case, or Verizon, AT&T, and so forth.
So the first thing was to not do what they were doing. So what did you imagine they were doing wrong at the time that you had to shift? Because people are comfortable doing the strategy.
Right. Well, I think first of all, we were very late onto the application space.
Yeah. Internet space.
If you remember, you and I both used BlackBerry before, right?
We don’t have apps.
Then we were late on apps. Then we didn’t really embrace the whole world of web browsing as early as we should be.
The early days of BlackBerry, it takes a long time to load a page, for example. Remember that?
Right, exactly. Yeah.
Now, however, I have to defend the prior management a little bit. The reason of the lack of apps in the very beginning, it doesn’t mean it’s right, but it just happened to be, it’s really more focused on security and privacy.
Because they didn’t want to open the API to everybody.
We are used by the presidents of the world. It’s an interesting debate, maybe it’ll come back our way this time ...
Now, right, yeah.
Maybe. It’s an interesting debate, but we kind of shifted away from what the customer wants, even for, in our mind, for their own good. So, that’s No. 1. The No. 2 thing is interesting, too. You remember we talked about the web browsing being very slow?
Unsatisfying? Well, it was an attempt to save money for the customer like you and I.
So you didn’t have to use as much data.
What we do is, we do buffering. Instead of having a continuous connection, we do a buffer. That’s why, remember the days when half a page would load, and then you have to wait for a little bit, and then the other half of the page will load?
It’s like the 2K buffers, in each of the buffering. Now the idea of that is because the data plans are very expensive ...
... the roaming plan is outrageously expensive, and the network was kind of, a lot of times, doesn’t perform consistently.
This was designed ...
To protect that. And then Apple changed everything.
Right, and then Apple changed everything. Remember in the early days of Apple, it kills that battery, remember that?
And it costs outrageous.
The costs were high. I remember being with a Google executive who had spent $10,000 in China, and he was complaining, said I should write a story. I said, “Nobody cares about a stupid Google executive who’s rich.”
Who’s dumb with his fun. It was interesting, I remember the costs being enormous.
It was directionally correct because Apple forced down the prices.
Exactly. I think, again, there was a technological reasons, there was a customer reason and there’s a business reason that teaches us a lesson, that you can’t really emphasize any one of those three more than the other.
That causes disruption. Anyway, long story short, I came in, I look at the business, we’re still trying to make phones, and now we lost volume and we lost the BYOD world. We let Apple and Android get into the handset space. Things that I helped the company do was to go completely open systems. Instead of fighting iOS and fighting Android, we tried to embrace their community, so we’ve made our technology, security and software that could run across it, including a messaging BBM.
In some cases, it’s still a little late, the market has kind of gone on, but at least in this way we have a much bigger available market.
How hard was that to do that? Because it’s hard to shift a culture, because that was a very strong culture under its founders, as I recall.
It’s very hard.
It’s very hard.
So, what are the things you did?
Well, first of all, we made a number of acquisitions. We have to change a number of managements, and a constant communication, we call it the Town Hall. We have a lot of Town Halls, by myself, by my direct reports, by their direct reports, and in fact, sometimes, in the past, I remember some employee will say, “I’m Town Hall fatigued. There’s so many Town Halls.”
Too much information.
Right, people keep saying that. So you kind of say, “This is the strategy.” We come up with one first and then we say, “This is the strategy,” and then you tell them the strategy, then you tell them again, and tell them again, until they say either, “I buy it,” or, “I’m moving on.”
“Stop talking about it.” Right.
“I’m moving on,” right.
The strategy you were trying to embrace was this open ... Can you explain that just a little more? Then when we get into the next section, I want to hear what’s going on now there, because I think most people don’t have BlackBerry at the top of their mind.
Okay. The strategy really is, we took everything that we’d done well in building a handset. If you think about BlackBerry handsets, the first thing that came to your mind is security, reliability.
Durability. Productivity. So, I remember people telling me they could write a script on a BlackBerry, and entire script of a movie on a BlackBerry. If you think about that, behind ... I kind of click one level down and say ...
And they like the keyboard. The keyboard.
And they love the keyboards. That’s productivity.
The keyboard gives you accuracy, gives you all that, and give you a look-ahead. So, our keyboard has the best learning, self-learning capability, and look-ahead and get you the right words.
Anyway, so we took all that, you click down one level and say, “What are the technology, what are the patterns that supported that? That enabled that to happen?” Then we took that and say, “Okay, let’s make that a business.” So we built a software version of a hardware, if that makes sense to you.
We employ everything we do that is in security, reliability, productivity, durability area, we do everything we do there and make it a software platform for people to manage endpoints, which we could talk more about.
Right. When you said security, I want to get to that in the next section. The idea of security now, as you said, has come back around, this idea of privacy, security and everything else. How do you look at that? You, obviously, that was pretty much BlackBerry’s ... The keyboard and security were pretty much its strongest ...
That’s exactly what we did. We think about the best thing we do is to manage devices. If you think devices in a broader sense, it’s the endpoints. So we said, okay, we’re going to make the endpoints and we’re going to open up managing not only BlackBerry, but everybody’s endpoints, including phones, tablet, PCs, equipment, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, medical devices and so forth. If you think about the world of endpoints, and we build a platform, software platform, to manage that endpoint and manage it securely. This is how we imported everything we know how to do in securing a phone into securing an endpoint management software.
This is where we are today.
We’re going to take a quick break now for a word from our sponsors. We’ll be back in a minute with John Chen from BlackBerry.
We’re here with John Chen, he’s the CEO of BlackBerry. He’s talked about taking over BlackBerry four years ago when it was in a lot of trouble. Talk about where it is now. How many employees do you have? You said you had 8,000.
Yeah. We now have about half the size.
Half the size.
It’s located here?
Well, still, our headquarters is still in Waterloo.
It’s still a Canadian company. A majority of our engineer [team] is in Waterloo, Mississauga and Ottawa.
So you live in Canada?
No, I live in the Bay Area. We have about 600 people still in the Bay Area. Through a number of acquisitions we made, we bought a company called Good Technology, we bought a company called Ad Hoc, and WatchDogs, so we bought a few companies. That’s part of the implementation, the strategy we talked about earlier, building it organically and building it inorganically.
Talk about what you do now. How would people talk about and interface with BlackBerry now? Your main areas of business.
Yeah. I have three businesses in it and they are interrelated. The most important business, or the biggest part of the business, is called endpoint management, we call it the unified endpoint management.
This is the secure ...
The security. This is to help enterprise to manage their devices, everything that connects to the internet or their own private network, to manage those devices and the application deployment of those devices. That’s the most important thing. These are the banks and the G7 governments and law firms and hospitals.
Okay, so those are that. The second one, which catch a lot of peoples’ fancy, was what I call the embedded technology. Embedded technology, we are actually in 60 million cars out there running around, automobiles, and we are very early in the connected space. I have to give you a little bit of a history back.
Before my time, we bought a company called QNX which happens to provide ... From Harman, the people who built ...
Oh, okay. It’s part of Samsung now, but it used to be Harman.
They built components for cars, so they are called a tier one. Their customers would be like the Ford, the GM, the Mercedes ...
Right, the auto vendor. So, we bought that company from them because they claimed to that company that they had the most secure microkernel technology, which is operating systems. The idea was to take this operating system, put it in things, happened to be cars in that case, and secure it. The reason why they, one of the founders, actually, was an engineer who bought this, the reason why they bought it was they were going to create a new operating system for the phone, the most secure phone, it’s called the BlackBerry 10. This actually came out as a product.
When I came in, I thought the phone business had limited runway, I thought the car business had huge runway.
So, we decided to switch back into cars, to focus on cars. It has always been in cars, but to kind of add focus and add investment, and instead of only doing things like infotainment systems like maps and all that, audio equipment and so forth in the car, we branch out, we added to it like safety systems and virtual cockpit and over-the-air technology, hypervisor. A lot of things to do with safety and security of a car, and telematics. Now, instead of just doing infotainment, we now have 10 or 12 different modules in a car.
This happened to be one of our highest growth areas. If you do a search on maybe the last six to 12 months’ worth of press releases, and the announcement wins, we partnered with Baidu and Qualcomm and Nvidia to build the connected cars and the future autonomous platform. Now, this week hasn’t been too kind to us ...
... because of a lot of happenings in the car area.
Right. The accidents, you mean.
The accidents, yeah. We could talk more about that. We actually have two cars being tested.
That’s the second part of the business. The third part of the business is, take a lot of the stuff that you talk about, like keyboards and all that, and building phones and the operating system behind it and security and all that, we license it to people. That’s our licensing business.
What happened to that lawsuit with Ryan Seacrest?
Ryan Seacrest? They lost, so they stopped making it.
It’s not because we agreed on a royalty base, it’s that their business wasn’t doing well.
Right, right. People did like it. The people who loved it, liked it, but it was kind of funny that people were trying to mimic the BlackBerry. I remember him showing it to me, I’m like, “Do you have rights to this? What?”
I should call you as a witness.
He kind of left that one. Who do you license that to?
I license to a company, like one company in China called TCL, they’re building phones for obviously a lot of different markets around the world. I have a company in India called Optimus, it’s one of the top three cellphone companies over there, and we license the technology and they’re building a BlackBerry over there for the Indian market.
The BlackBerry brand.
How many BlackBerry phones are on the market now? That’s not part of your big business, right?
No, it’s not part of my big business. Right now, we still have ...
These are people making BlackBerry phones.
We have a bunch of people making BlackBerry phones. Some of them are BlackBerry labeled because you can’t touch the operating system if you use the BlackBerry label because I manage the brand and the security, but you could also license the sub-component of ours underneath it.
Under it, right.
And then you ...
Use your own brand.
Phones you make no longer, right?
No, we don’t. We haven’t made phone for the last ...
You just stopped.
No, we had to make our own phones.
Would you ever imagine getting back in the phone business, making it?
I would never say never.
The interesting thing, some people are asking me ...
You know, actually ...
No, I could buy a BlackBerry.
You’ll find it very interesting, I’m not suggesting we’re going to make phones. For the foreseeable future I think our strategy works pretty well right now and we will continue executing it. I think there might be a need in this world for a phone that is very simple and just focused on email, text, secure email, secure text, and a basic browser.
Do you go to Washington a lot? Because everybody has a BlackBerry there, it’s very funny. It’s as if your company was the top company in the world.
I go to Washington a lot, yeah.
Yeah, it’s funny. You’ll go to a party and you’re like ...
They all have BlackBerrys, yeah.
Though it’s shifting, they’re definitely moving to iPhones.
But they are still all using our software.
We have about four million federal employees on the software.
Wow. Right. I want to talk a little bit about that, but before that, you also have a thing called Jarvis, can you explain that?
Jarvis is our latest cybersecurity two sets. Again, it comes from the collection of our technology in the company. It’s a binary co-scanning algorithm software. It’s cloud based, so you build up a set of rules and then those rules, you could modify, it could learn by itself, it could build up. It looks into complex coding, but I don’t need the binary, I don’t need your source code, so it never will violate your IP. It’s looking for certain patterns and then it will identify, say, “Here’s a piece of code that has too many loops in it, too many subroutines, too many branches,” so forth. You and the developer and the manager could decide whether this was something that they intended to do.
There are a lot of scientifically proven algorithms that when you have codes that are more complex, you open up more vulnerability windows, people could come in and attack it. Our job is to find those windows and identify those.
Right. Is it named after the Ironman Jarvis?
Yeah. It happened to be the same. The Ironman Jarvis is the butler ...
Right. That’s right. That’s right.
... is a computer butler for ...
Robert Downey Jr’s character.
Right, right. I’m trying to remember his name. Tony Stark.
Tony Stark, yeah.
Larry Ellison, Elon Musk, whatever.
That’s right. Yeah, exactly. Anyway, we have been calling it Jarvis ourselves, too, for a long, long time. This is, again, before my time.
It’s something that we used internally. We expanded it to be able to take the rules for our customers, like a car manufacturer, and then we were going through all this complexity of the code, and then we generate reports for them and identify areas that could be better managed, closing the vulnerability windows and so forth. It’s not only for cars, but we released it for automotive at this point, but we have plans to do it for other areas like the medical field.
Which of these areas that you’re in right now do you imagine being your most important? We’ll get to the future in the next break, but what do you spend most of your time on? Because you do have, what, tens of thousands of patents, correct?
About 40,000 patents, yeah. 37 to be exact, 37,000.
How do you work that part of the business? Because that’s got to be a big part of your business.
Yeah. I always like to tell people that we do go license our technology to other people and patents, we have some high-profile win cases and some cases on the dock, but we are not interested in just lawsuits or being a patent troll.
I call ourselves ...
We could, but that’s not ... Being an engineer for so long, I have much more respect on the other side of the equation. I like to focus ourselves on being innovators and patent creators than expensing ...
You’re using your ...
Right, using the patent. On the other hand, being a public company CEO, I have a responsibility to maximize the assets. What we like to do always is we like to approach companies and say, “Hey, we would like to license our technology to you, and some of them, by the way, you might be using already.” It depends on who they are, some of them will say, “Yeah, I agree. Let’s work out a business term.” Some will say, “No, over my dead body,” and then ... We’ve tried many different ways, some we just leave it alone, and some we will go after them.
It’s part of your business, but not the focus. Again, it could be a bigger part, right?
Yeah. Not my focus.
Have people come to you, trying to buy your patents?
A number of times.
A number of times.
Patents is also very important for us to defend our own business, so it’s not that I sell my patents.
Of course, you could always make an arrangement, but we’re not a patent company.
Patent company, right.
We are a technology company that creates patent, employ our patents, to create businesses. Itself is not a business.
What is the biggest part of those three businesses that you have?
The fastest growing is the embedded software, the cars.
Right. The cars and stuff like that. All right, when we get back, we’re going to talk more about the future of cars and security because it seems like right now is your time, John, because these are the issues that are popping up in a popular sense with Facebook and Apple and others. I think you should do a BlackBerry phone, but we’ll talk about that when we get back. We’re going to take another break for a word from our sponsors. We’ll be back with BlackBerry CEO John Chen after this.
We’re here with John Chen, who’s the CEO of BlackBerry. We’re talking about where their business is today, but I’d like to talk about the future. Let’s start with security. Really a big issue, hacking, Russians everywhere, how to protect things, emails. Looking at this election where the email’s stolen and everything sort of pulled off of every kind of place, largely mobile, I think. Talk about where that is right now and how you all fit in, in general, how you look at the security space right now.
Okay. I do agree with one of the statements you just made. I think mobile security is probably now the biggest threat. I think that industry at large had a pretty good handle on network security blasted through the routers, or fixed-point security as in PCs and so forth. I think the mobile, it’s just the beginning of the ...
I think we’re talking to two different things. One is about security of protecting ... security of the devices and the code that is inside. The other one is actually exploiting the code, and so those are the privacy issue. I’m going to focus on just security. I don’t really deal with the privacy issue because we never use people’s data. We have a lot of data going through our network, but we never ever use it.
Why is that? Tim Cook talked about this in my interview with him last week, that it just wasn’t our business, and we could have made a lot of money doing it. You had a lot of names, why wasn’t that your business?
Well, it opens up exactly what is being opened up today.
I personally believe that ... I will just take me as an example. I believe that my medical data is my medical data. My voting data is my voting data. My preferences is my preferences. If there’s anybody who’s going to monetize or benefit from it, it should be me.
Right, right. You should be paid for it if you want to sell it, or whatever.
At least I have a choice, whether you pay me, I want to sell it, I don’t want to sell it.
You have the choice.
I have the choice, but today, there seems to be an industry goes around that they eliminate that choice by providing something else.
In exchange for that.
Perhaps called Facebook.
I don’t subscribe to that business model. I believe data, your own data, is yours.
I wouldn’t say it’s a moral imperative, but it’s what you are. Tim talked about this, Steve Jobs talked about this, privacy is sacrosanct, you don’t trade on this, or you don’t make a business out of it, because it creates not just that it’s a thing you believe in, but it creates enormous problems later if you don’t have the correct security in place.
Exactly. Also, the policy and guidelines are much more profound and involved than most people think. My job is to make sure you have a safe environment when you use my product, software or hardware. That you protect your own privacy and security. You have a choice over your own data and privacy security. That’s my job. My job is not to exploit what you put in there.
I think that’s, to me again, not my cup of tea, but that’s different people with different preferences.
Right. What’s the problems when you take that job on? Because you have a lot more responsibilities, which most of them aggregate.
Exactly. It’s like a bank taking people’s money, you have a lot more responsibility to make sure the money is safe.
It’s not as ... I only provided you the vault and making sure that your money is yours.
Having other people that could use your money, that’s ...
Right, that’s a different responsibility.
It’s a different ...
It’s really interesting because a lot of the stuff about companies like Facebook is, “Well, we don’t want the responsibility of dealing with this, we don’t want to make the choices.” I was like, “You built the thing. You built it the way you built it, and then you don’t want to make the ... Then don’t build it that way.”
Right. Exactly right. Exactly.
Yeah. So, talk a little bit about mobile security. What happens now? From your perspective, you are making the vault, so what happens right now, or what’s the real pain points or the points that you’re worried about?
Security is always a cat-and-mouse game. We’ll come up with algorithms that better secure both software and hardware, and the environment, and some people will hack into it. We’ll just make it difficult for them to hack in, and then when we identify the hack, we’ll cover that, that warning birdy, so to speak. We’re doing a ton of work with that in the automobile side of the equation.
A big part of this whole environment, maybe I could call it, is analytics and identity management. That’s where most of, all of us — and I don’t mean all of us at BlackBerry, but all of us in the industry — are working on, which is a better analytics to trap potential vulnerabilities and threats, as well as have identity management so sophisticated that it’s going to make it harder and harder to crack.
Those are the two areas.
What are the areas you worry about for consumers now, when you think about that?
I think it’s attitudes. Still, we have a lot of people that minimize the importance of identity, privacy and security, data security. It’s, again, in exchange of maybe free services and application, or make their life more fun ...
Games or ...
Yeah, games, or even just sharing. A lot of the time, I wonder whether sharing your ... I don’t share my locations, and I wonder whether when I post the pictures and show you my family vacation, for example, everybody feels great about that, but that means at your home, it’s wide open.
Right, right. Right.
This might be too ridiculous an example.
And your audience may say, “Hey, you know ...”
“What’s the difference?”
“What’s the difference?” and stuff. Or you tell the post office not to deliver mail, don’t you think the postman already knows then?
There’s always a give and take in that area, but I try to intend to be a little more private and more protective of my data.
Does Silicon Valley have that mentality enough or does something have to change with these new crises?
We are changing. It’s just the last two weeks ...
Right, it seems like it’s the older people saying that, not the younger versions. Although, it’s interesting because the older people — not the middle ones, but the really young people — care. My kids are like, “Don’t take a picture of me.” They’re on Snapchat, so it disappears, or they have much more control over it. They won’t use Facebook because of the sharing. It’s really interesting, and my kids are in their teens. They are very much like, “Back off, Facebook. Back off, Google.” It’s an interesting ...
That’s interesting. I don’t have teenagers anymore. You’re right, you’re absolutely right. My kids are still using it, so maybe through all these discussions going on, they might think twice about it, I don’t know, I haven’t discussed it with them yet. Like you said, the older folks, we’ve been wanting this. By the way, this is not that new of a discovery, it just happened to have a situation that caught the national attention. It’s always ...
There was an election, yeah.
Yeah, because of elections. It’s always been something of a concern to older folks, if I can use that word.
Right. What do you imagine will happen to the ... I asked Tim this last week, what would you have done if you were Mark Zuckerberg? What would you do?
After the ...
Yeah, he said, “I wouldn’t get in the situation in the first place,” which was kind of a nice smack at [Mark Zuckerberg]1, but what would you do now?
What would I do now? Well, I think he is, from what I read, he is trying to do the right thing. He has to do the audits of what actually have happened, and then close those windows.
They’re out. The birds are out, the bird’s gone, that’s the problem, they can’t get the data back, correct?
You can’t. The people said they deleted the data, but they never deleted the data or where at, and so that is unfortunate. Going forward — I’m sorry to say, there’s not much you could do for things already happened — but going forward, you’ll be able to build the system that restores that level of confidence.
Does that go against the whole what has been happening in Silicon Valley over the last 10 years — which is sharing, sharing, open, open — does that go against that?
Yes, it does.
So what happens to the businesses?
I don’t know enough to answer that question, but it does. Again, I don’t think you could have it both ways.
Right. What about in the cars? Now, obviously, this week there’s been some accidents. Which, look, there was 10,000 regular car accidents in the same day with people driving, but that doesn’t matter, people are focused on these autonomous cars if there’s just one, which there’s going to be many, many, many over the years as they continue to iterate. Talk about the challenges there as you look at the single one.
1.3 million people die in car accidents every year. I don’t want to minimize the single one, it’s very tragic, but it’s a little bit of a wake-up call for all of us, that governments need to set a certain standard, safety standard, before even the tests should resume. I think, as a technologist, this is troublesome to me because without certain safeguards, we’re now signaling to the world that maybe these technologies aren’t ready for primetime and it’s not safe.
Now, the funny thing, I had that discussion this morning with somebody. All these 1.3 million fatality and all the countless number of accidents that surrounded it that doesn’t have fatality, you and I are driving, and we feel it’s in our control, but when you and I get into a car, a vehicle that you and I aren’t driving, and decide to hit the center, you don’t think it’s in control. If you ever have that feeling, that technology will not take off.
I don’t care how I could show you ...
It’s much safer and everything else, yeah.
90 percent safer. It doesn’t matter, it will happen.
What happens to the industry? Where does it go next? Should it not be on the roads right now? Because at some point they have to be on the road.
Absolutely, at some point. You can’t have a vehicle that is supposed to be on the road and you don’t test it on the road. I think the problem we have today is this. We’ve got states setting their own guidelines. Some of the states are quite flexible about these guidelines on testing.
Arizona, for example.
I think so.
They want to attract that business.
They want to attract that business, right. I think that needs to be looked at. I think the federal level, and even more globally, globally speaking level, every country’s trying to set their safety standard for what an AV car, autonomous vehicle, should adhere to, a safety standard. I really believe this is what the world ought to be, no cars that could leave the manufacturers without certain standards, and those standard will be set by a combination of private industry, self-regulated, and public policymakers, a national standards body, I think these should be a combination of both.
Should it be national instead of states? Because cars have always been regulated by the states.
Absolutely has to be national.
Has to be national. Do you feel this administration has the wherewithal to do that?
Well, I got involved a little bit with AV start programs and have been writing letters to the senators and the Congress people. That’s a very interesting question, I don’t know how to answer your question.
I think Elaine Chao is the only non-controversial member of the Trump cabinet, right?
Has she done anything bad? No, she’s quietly over there in the corner with her husband, Mitch McConnell.
Yeah, Mitch McConnell. DOT has ... I have had several interactions with them, they have a proposal, but it pretty much gets stuck at the lawmaker right now.
I don’t think administration people are slowing it down, but they need to push it, too.
They need to push it.
They need to push it.
What states are good in this area? California or ...
California’s are reasonably good.
I think New York’s okay.
I think Arizona is kind of the outlier ... I don’t think this is state ...
Right, so yeah, it has to be federal.
It’s got to be a federal standard.
Yeah. What’s the amount of time, do you think, before there’s going to be real autonomous vehicle use by consumers? Because it’s going to be a big business for you, isn’t it?
Everybody thinks it’s going to be the 2021. I don’t think we have a prayer of 2021. I know there might be some autonomous vehicles being available that you and I could buy, but there’ll be very few you and I, in my mind. I think 2025, a hybrid model will work. Now, the one interesting thing is, we built our company based on connected cars, so that’s just the one step before being fully autonomous.
The reason why our business is growing right now is because of connected cars. So, I have time. I could afford to wait.
You have time to wait, and the connected meaning fully ... Using them in ...
We should just call it level four cars. Which is, they don’t drive itself, you could override. Tesla has ...
I was test-riding a Tesla. A fully autonomous car I like better than a semi-autonomous car, because I always feel like I want to grab the ... I was in the Google one, I felt better, it feels like a ride.
Yeah. If everybody has them, as long as they can see pedestrians, I’m good.
Yeah. I almost got run over four times in Austin this weekend, and that was with regular people driving. Crazy people in pickup trucks.
Let me just say, there’s a lot of aggressive men in pickup trucks in Austin, Texas. Literally almost did and I thought, “Wow, I’d rather take my chances with an autonomous car.”
The problem is that a car ... I don’t want to digress, but the car usually has a lifecycle of 10 years, plus.
Even if we started selling autonomous vehicle today, okay?
For it to be fully ... it’d be 10 years from today
It’s not going to be until ... John, we’re going to be dead.
We’ll be dead.
Maybe they’ll ride us around in a car.
Last two areas I want to get to before we finish. One is making BlackBerrys. This retro idea, what could you do? Would you ever get ... Why not do that?
I think actually ...
Because you have a secure phone, this is great.
Actually, I think I should find a hardware partner to do this.
Has anyone expressed interest?
I haven’t explored it yet.
Haven’t explored it. What would it look like? What would the BlackBerry phone look like?
Would it look like the old one? Like make it real clunky.
I would love ... Yes.
I think I’m going to ... Remember the 9900?
I remember, yeah.
It fits right in your palm?
You could just two thumb ...
The little memo, the little ... It was like a pager, almost. It was a pager, right?
It was a pager first, right, it was.
But with messaging.
Messaging, yeah. I think somebody should make that.
A big one, like a ...
I really do.
People will buy ... Here’s the thing, the reason why people will buy it, I think this whole BYOD, bring your own device, in some ways, all the businesses embrace it because they think this is cost ... They are cost advantaged and then they have choices to their employees, which are all great reasons behind it. The ability to manage it in a very secure world ...
It’s difficult and almost nightmarish. I think they would love to say, “Hey, for certain people, use this phone. It’s secure, I have audit trail on all your texts or your web browsing or your email. I could recover, I could wipe it, I could do whatever I wanted to do with it, but it’s going to be a work thing.”
I think there are a lot of professional would say, “Okay, if I know that my stuff aren’t going to get leaked, I’ll take that.” I believe regulated industry like doctors and lawyers and people that make deals, for example, for investment bankers and government employees, I think they will love that. You don’t make it too fancy, but you don’t make it too expensive, either. I’m making this up as I go.
Yeah. No fancy lines and gorilla glass for you, right?
Exactly. Let’s say $199 a phone, $150 a phone, you can make a very nice phone if you have very limited functionality but is highly secure, and CIO would love to use it because they could really manage these things.
Right. BlackBerry’s back, everybody, just wait. Since you’re an engineer, what do you think the most interesting technology coming forward is? Is it AI, is it robotics, automation, AR? What are you most intrigued by?
Don’t know much about AR.
Which Apple is obsessed with.
I probably think that AI is probably the most interesting thing.
Why is that?
Well, if you’re talking about robotics, robotics without AI is kind of useless.
I think machines will have to have a much deeper algorithm and much smarter, and I think that will open up a lot of different applications in our world. I really believe the artificial intelligence is ... By the way, artificial intelligence has been around for ...
I still remember, I went to graduate school, we were working on a computer program that will learn itself, that will learn through their experience. This was very early on artificial intelligence, and they were looking at ... That program was monitoring database transactions, so they would know that if you asked this question, they most likely will ask that question, and all that.
Then they stopped building that experience on logic.
So, I still think that’s the most fascinating.
The most fascinating.
In my mind.
In your mind. When you think about that, who do you think is critically ... Who will dominate that area? I know Google’s sort of far ahead.
Yeah. I think they do. I don’t know all the details, but I believe IBM is one of the sleepers there.
With Watson. Yeah, I would agree with that. John, what is the most hyped thing? This is my last, final question for you, what do you think you look at as an engineer and you’re like, “Oh, come on”?
I am very involved in identity management, I think that’s the ... I wouldn’t use the word coolest thing, I think it’s the most necessary thing.
Necessary thing, but what’s the thing that people talk about, you think, “That is not going to happen.”
Oh, the hype-based things?
That’s interesting. I don’t know.
I’ll give one. I had an argument with my kids this week, they were talking about robots taking over.
I was going to say robotics.
Having said the robotics, I have seen many examples of robotics in medicine ...
... robotics in industry, heavy industries.
Right. Carrying things, yeah.
I’m talking about walking around, like the one Jeff Bezos was walking the other day.
Yeah. No, no, I think ...
You know what I think? I think-
It’d be the most interesting thing, like robotic pets are ridiculous, right?
Right. I think we’re going to have humans having robotic elements before we’re going to have robots that are like humans. Why not just add stuff to us and then we have to not worry about how to walk?
From a medical point of view, Stanford is doing a lot of things about biomechanical stuff that I’m sure will help people address their ailment.
Yeah, their arms and things like that.
I think that’s a great thing.
So, John, last question, are you regretful for having taken the job? Do you feel good about having taken this job?
Oh no, I feel good.
I feel good about taking the job. I just re-upped myself for five years, partly because I really believe, on a serious note, I really believe there’s so much ... That BlackBerry is now a safe company, we’re stable and we’re making money. We’re doing what we think we should be doing. The future in front of us, like you said, securities, all the autonomous stuff we were talking about, and analytics and technology and reliability, privacy, are all in our wheelhouse.
So, properly executed, doesn’t mean guaranteed, but properly executed, I think there’s a lot of future in this. I’d like to see it get on its way before I move on to do something else.
Okay. All right. John, it was great talking to you. Thank you for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.