BlackBerry's IoT plans start close to home: cars, asset tracking

The company announced a cloud-based platform for building and managing networks of things

BlackBerry is taking the same approach with its Internet of Things platform, launched Wednesday at International CES, as it is with its handset business: Aim at its core markets.

In IoT, the struggling mobile vendor has found an emerging area of technology where it may have the right combination of strengths. The company signaled as much last May when it announced Project Ion, a future cloud-based service it said would make it easier for enterprises to develop IoT software.

The results of that project, which involved beta testing by several customers, have been folded into a product called simply the BlackBerry IoT Platform, set for availability in April. The cloud-based system was announced at the biggest consumer technology show in the world along with some device and messaging news closer to the spirit of CES. But apart from some plans for messaging on wearables, the company's IoT story steered clear of Las Vegas gadget fever.

Its target market in IoT, at least for now, is squarely within familiar territory: connected cars and asset tracking.

BlackBerry's QNX business is a powerhouse in automotive as well as industrial embedded software, and the company as a whole has been rediscovering its unsexy enterprise roots. That trend continued on Wednesday with the introduction at AT&T of its BlackBerry Classic and an updated version of its chunky Passport smartphone. Both sport the company's trademark physical keyboard, and the AT&T Passport, though it gets rounded corners, is still pretty square. The company did give a nod to consumer tech, saying its BBM messaging will be available on Android Wear smart watches.

Industrial IoT might prove a winner for BlackBerry, simply because no company yet dominates the field and BlackBerry has enterprise credibility. But even though businesses will probably buy into IoT sooner than most consumers, the industry may take a long time to emerge.

The BlackBerry IoT Platform combines QNX embedded software with BlackBerry's secure network infrastructure and device lifecycle management. At its heart is what the company calls an efficient, scalable messaging system that can deliver highly responsive performance, BlackBerry says. That system serves as a message bus for other components including instantaneous data indexing and storage for real-time intelligence, analytics for data visualization and detailed permissions for validating every action, message and piece of data.

The platform includes several features for device management, including application enablement, over-the-air software updating and log collection. Those can speed up device deployment and extend the useful life of devices in the field, BlackBerry says.

If IoT forecasts are accurate, anything that manages IoT devices will have to scale up dramatically to serve the expected volume of connected things out in the world. BlackBerry emphasized the size of its infrastructure in pushing the IoT Platform, saying its global network of data centers handles about 35 petabytes of data per month and has peering connections with more than 300 mobile operators.

The first place BlackBerry will try to sell the IoT platform will be businesses that need to keep track of valuable things that move around a lot, such as the shipping and automotive industries. Later it plans to take the system beyond asset tracking and connected cars to other fields including energy and health care.

AT&T will offer the Passport for US$649.99 or $199.99 with a two-year agreement, as well as under AT&T Next payment plans for as little as $21.67 per month. It will sell the BlackBerry Classic for $419.99 or $49.99 with a two-year agreement, as well as on AT&T Next plans for as little as $14 per month. Exact shipping dates weren't provided.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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