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BlackBerry makes China push as the OS for Xpeng smart cars

The once-pioneering BlackBerry is pretty much out of the smartphone manufacturing game, but the Canadian company has been busy transitioning to providing software for connected devices, including smart cars. Now it’s brought that section of its business to China.

This week, BlackBerry announced that it will be powering the Level 3 driving domain controller of Xpeng, one of the most-funded electric vehicle startups in China and Tesla’s local challenger. Baked in Xpeng’s intelligent cockpit is BlackBerry’s operating system called QNX, which competes with the likes of Android and Linux to enter automakers’ next-gen models.

Sitting between BlackBerry and Xpeng’s tie-up is middleman Desay SV, which specializes in automotive system integrators like Aptiv. Desay SV, founded in 1986, has an illustrious past as a previously Sino-German joint venture that involved Siemens. The Huizhou-based company today supplies to Tier 1 automotive brands and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in China and around the world.

The kernel of Xpeng’s domain controller is NVIDIA’s Xavier cockpit chip for automated cars, so a good amount of software and hardware in Xpeng’s new car is based on foreign technologies.

The mass-produced Xpeng model in the spotlight is an electric sports sedan numbered P7. It features a processing unit that can calculate “the vehicle’s driving status and provides 360-degree omnidirectional perception with real-time monitoring of the surrounding environment to make safe driving decisions,” according to the announcement.

“Desay SV Automotive has extensive experience in intelligent cockpits, smart driving and connected services. Augmented with the safety expertise of BlackBerry QNX, together we can address the diverse needs of an auto industry that is undergoing meaningful transformation,” said John Wall, senior vice president and co-head of BlackBerry Technology Solutions, in a statement.

“To that end, it’s a real privilege to have BlackBerry technology powering the intelligent driving system within Xpeng Motors innovative new P7 system.”

The partnership arrives as Alibaba and Xiaomi backed-Xpeng is looking to raise up to $1.1 billion from its initial public offering in New York. Its Chinese rivals Li Auto and NIO raised similar amounts from their U.S. IPOs.

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BlackBerry’s brand switches hands again, set to return as a 5G Android handset

A good brand is hard to kill. Over the past several years, the smartphone space has seen a resurgence of once-mighty mobile brands making a comeback with various degrees of success. HMD’s Nokia phones are probably the best and most successful example, but even Palm had a brief moment in the sun.

And then there’s the case of BlackBerry. TCL surprised the mobile world by bringing the brand raring back with an Android handset that re-embraced the QWERTY keyboard. That, in and of itself, wasn’t enough, of course. But TCL has the chops to deliver quality hardware, and certainly did so with the KeyOne. I know I was surprised the first time I saw one in person behind the scenes at CES a few years back.

Early this year, TCL announced the end of the partnership, noting, “We… regret to share… that as of August 31, 2020, TCL Communication will no longer be selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices.” From its phrasing, it seemed like a less than amicable end for the deal. But TCL has already moved on to producing devices under its own brand name after years of subsidiaries and branded deals.

All of which brings us to this week’s announcement that a company you’ve never heard of, called OnwardMobility, is bringing the BlackBerry name to hardware for North America and Europe (other branding deals have existed in other markets). It’s a strange deal for starters, due to the fact that OnwardMobility is hardly a household name. It’s based in Austin, Texas, has fewer than 50 employees and was founded in March of last year, perhaps with such a partnership in mind.

After all, while a branding deal is far from a guaranteed recipe for success, it is, at least, a way of getting that first foot through the door. I’m not really sure I would be writing anything about OnwardMobility for TechCrunch dot com at the moment, were it not for the promise of reviving the BlackBerry name yet again. So that’s something. The company’s staff also notably involves some former TCL folk, as well as people involved with the BlackBerry software side of things. Another name that pops up a lot is Sonim Technologies, another Austin-based company that is a subsidiary of a Shenzhen-based brand of the same name. They largely specialize in rugged devices for first responders.

CEO Peter Franklin has both Microsoft and Zynga on his resume, and produced this fairly low-fi YouTube video to explain the company’s mission:

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OnwardMobility says it’s a standalone startup. No word yet on investments or investors, though it will certainly be interesting to find out who’s backing this latest push to make the BlackBerry name relevant again. Notably, the company’s not sharing renders yet, either, but says it’s bringing a 5G device to market in 2021, with a physical keyboard and the focus on security that’s long been a key differentiator for the BlackBerry brand.

BlackBerry (the software company) certainly seems to be on board with its new partner here. CEO John Chen had this to say about the deal:

BlackBerry is thrilled OnwardMobility will deliver a BlackBerry 5G smartphone device with physical keyboard leveraging our high standards of trust and security synonymous with our brand. We are excited that customers will experience the enterprise and government level security and mobile productivity the new BlackBerry 5G smartphone will offer.

More or less what you’d anticipate on that front. For now, the news is basically OnwardMobility’s entry onto the scene and announcement of its BlackBerry licensing deal. I’m honestly not sure how much clout the BlackBerry name holds in 2020 — nor do I necessarily believe there’s a critical mass of consumers clamoring to return to the physical keyboard. So OnwardMobility has a lot to prove in an extremely crowded mobile market. I guess we’ll see what it has to offer next year. Stay tuned.

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Is Zoom the next Android or the next BlackBerry?

In business, there’s nothing so valuable as having the right product at the right time. Just ask Zoom, the hot cloud-based video conferencing platform experiencing explosive growth thanks to its sudden relevance in the age of sheltering in place.

Having worked at BlackBerry in its heyday in the early 2000s, I see a lot of parallels to what Zoom is going through right now. As Zooming into a video meeting or a classroom is today, so too was pulling out your BlackBerry to fire off an email or check your stocks circa 2002. Like Zoom, the company then known as Research in Motion had the right product for enterprise users that increasingly wanted to do business on the go.

Of course, BlackBerry’s story didn’t have a happy ending.

From 1999 to 2007, BlackBerry seemed totally unstoppable. But then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, Google launched Android and all of the chinks in the BlackBerry armor started coming undone, one by one. How can Zoom avoid the same fate?

As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else. It’s more important than security (an issue Zoom is getting blasted about right now), what CIOs want, your user install base and the larger brand identity.

When the iPhone was released, many people within BlackBerry rightly pointed out that we had a technical leg up on Apple in many areas important to business and enterprise users (not to mention the physical keyboard for quickly cranking out emails)… but how much did that advantage matter in the end? If there is serious market pull, the rest eventually gets figured out… a lesson I learned from my time at BlackBerry that I was lucky enough to be able to immediately apply when I joined Google to work on Android.

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