BlackBerry boss seeks to keep Obama a subscriber

CLIENT OUTREACH::John Chen has visited more than 100 clients since he took office and must be doing something right, with the firm’s shares up 53 percent

Bloomberg

Sun, Mar 09, 2014 - Page 13

BlackBerry Ltd chief executive officer John Chen has held talks with the White House to ensure US President Barack Obama and other staff members continue to use their BlackBerry devices.

“As part of my meeting customers I have briefed the White House from an IT perspective,” Chen said in an interview on Thursday with Bloomberg Television at Oasis: The Montgomery Summit in Santa Monica, California. “It’s just customer outreach — and they were nice enough to share some of their thoughts with me.”

Chen, who has met or talked to more than 100 clients since taking over as CEO in November last year, declined to elaborate on what he discussed with the White House beyond saying it was about “some of the stuff they like and some of the stuff they would like us to work on.”

Chen is trying to shore up the Canadian smartphone maker’s base of heavy e-mail users in government and business, clients who rely on the sophisticated encryption technology its software and servers provide. Last week, at a trade show in Barcelona, Chen revealed the Q20, a smartphone he calls the Classic because it brings back buttons dropped from recent models, and he introduced a more secure version of the BBM instant-messaging service.

“For a variety of reasons, including some security-related, we don’t talk about” Obama’s smartphone publicly, said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. White House staff members are issued BlackBerrys by the US government, Earnest said. The US president has been photographed with a BlackBerry.

Getting back in customers’ good graces is part of Chen’s plan for a turnaround at Waterloo, Ontario-based BlackBerry. The company’s shares have soared 53 percent since he took the helm, recovering ground after losing more than 90 percent of their value since a 2008 peak.

Chen is working to reduce BlackBerry’s risks of unsold inventory by teaming with Foxconn Technology Group (富士康科技集團) to design, build and distribute BlackBerry phones. The first of those new phones, the sub-US$200 Z3, goes on sale in Indonesia in April, with the Q20 Classic probably appearing in September or October, Chen said on Thursday.

“I have to be making sure that the user interface is one that has a modern technology, as well as letting the old user base — like the Bold 9900 — be comfortable,” he said. “I am bridging the two worlds, and that takes a little while.”

Chen has been quick to defend BlackBerry from those who have dismissed it as a relic.

“I would have thought it would have been a more natural partnership, to help each other out to get better penetration in the market,” Chen said. “So, although I don’t like it, it won’t hurt that much.”

Chen, who turned around Sybase Inc more than a decade ago before selling it to SAP AG for US$5.8 billion, has recruited former SAP colleagues to join BlackBerry and says he maintains regular contact with SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott.

“Bill understands that it’s important for me to help stabilize the ship,” Chen said. BlackBerry is a partner and a customer of SAP, the Blackberry boss said.