Standing on the shoulders of giants

In the strange and cramped basement auditorium of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design QNX founder Dan Dodge is buzzing. BlackBerry CEO John Chen has just finished mapping out his company’s future which has Dodge’s QNX system as the centrepiece of the firm’s survival.

Twenty years ago Dan Dodge was told his company would be driven out of business by the then dominant Microsoft and its Windows CE embedded software system.

Since then QNX has been through a strange journey which saw it owned by the speaker company Harmon Kardon before being bought by BlackBerry in 2010.

Chen’s vision of BlackBerry being at the centre of the Internet of Things through QNX was a vindication of Dodge and puts his system firmly in the spotlight as the key to the struggling communications company’s future.

Shortly after Chen’s media presentation, Dodge spoke to Networked Globe about where QNX and BlackBerry are going in the Internet of Things

The operating system at the IoT’s core

“We’re in the cars, in the power plants, in the internet routers and in the casino gaming machines. We’re everywhere,” Dodge proudly states.

“Just about every glass bottle in the United States is made in a factory run by QNX, we make a lot of the beer. We run a lot of the sewage disposal plants, we manage the water supply system for Disney. It just goes on.”

“We run in the OS in all of GE’s gas fired generators. If you look at a windmill, every single vane has the QNX system controlling its angle of attack. Cisco uses us inside their core routers.

“We are the operating system at the core of the system.”

For Dodge, QNX’s strength lies in the company’s deep roots in embedded computing: “The one thing we have over the big server companies is they don’t understand embedded. One of the big problems with big data is getting the data in the first place.”

“When I talk about the architectures of other systems, we’re fundamentally different. The fact we architected the system the way we did gives us an innate advantage. That will not change.”

“Having said that, do I believe that QNX will be in every device everywhere, no I don’t.”

“It all comes down to asking ‘how much is security worth to you?’” That security issue is the big selling point for both BlackBerry and QNX.

Splitting the IoT

One of the concerns with the Internet of Things is it appears to be splitting into a two tiered environment with a robust and secure industrial machine to machine (M2M) sector and a more fragile consumer IoT.

Dodge concedes this is happening and sees the challenge for QNX as being in appealing to price sensitive makers of consumer grade equipment, “I would say that ideally everybody should go with the enterprise grade as if you build the system and you use what we’re putting out.”

“It’s our job to price competitively such that even the consumer guys decide to use us as there’s a maintenance cost to keeping my stuff going. I gotta keep a staff of engineers who are continually trying to discover what they didn’t know.”

“What we will provide will address we believe meet the needs of a large majority of customers in the domestic and industrial space.”

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Security out of the box is one of the compelling features of QNX for IoT device manufacturers, Dodge believes; “our job is to convince them that they don’t have to do have to do it themselves – stop doing it fast and stop doing it stupid. Take our stuff and you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”

“You should focus on what you know about your device, make that perfect. We’ll give you the security out of the box.”

With the focus on costs and speed to market in the consumer internet of things, Dodge sees the lack of coherent standards across the industry as being a problem for the sector.

“The danger is that right now there are no clear no standards, in the absence of standards people make their own. In the case of consumer products, their only goal is to rush to market.”

“People are putting operating systems down, they’re sending data over clear text and they don’t have proper device identification or secure communications.”

“You’re talking about smarthomes where people can break into smartdevices.”

Securing the industrial internet

Dodge sees the Industrial Internet Consortium founded last March of which BlackBerry is a member alongside industry giants such as Cisco and GE as leading the drive for a secure IoT.

“The companies that are more on the industrial internet are much more security conscious. You’ll see those companies moving much slower.”

“We’re joining multiple organisations that all think they are going to define IoT standards. Again it will be like early days of the internet.”

“If you go back and look at all the protocols and things that were looked at before the internet, ultimately IP won and a set of standards rose out of that, but it was first defacto standards.”

“I think we’re going to see the same thing is going to happen here. We’ll see some defacto standards as people get mass and then we’ll see those turn into official standards.”

“I’m less interested in APIs and more interested in data. What are the data definitions going up and down. How do you code that? Ultimately that’s a communication problem. ”

“At the end of the day if the device and the back end can agree on the encoding of this data and how they index it, then we will be in good shape.”

Project Ion and BlackBerry’s cloud

One of the key parts of Chen’s strategy at BlackBerry is unifying the company’s services around its secure cloud computing platforms. This is an area Dodge sees as a key competitive advantage.

“I was in a meeting with a major OEM and we’re talking about our cloud and what it did. Towards the end they asked me a question; “so, who owns the data?” I blinked and said ‘you do’ and they replied ‘you are the first person that said that.’”

Unifying services under the Project Ion codename is a key part of BlackBerry’s secure enterprise handset and communication offerings against Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

“Project Ion is a merging together of BlackBerry’s identity service,” says Dodge. “We combine BlackBerry’s backend infrastructure and QNX’s embedded expertise for secure communication.”

“Ion is an internal code name and what it is leveraging multiple assets within the company to build an end to end solution that we can deploy broadly.”

“You shouldn’t call it the QNX cloud, you shouldn’t call it BES, it’s bigger than all of that.”

Taking on the competition

Having built their own operating system at QNX, Dodge is dismissive of other competing IoT systems, particularly Linux variants like Android and Tizen.

“Tizen has been re-invented three times and now Samsung is putting weight behind it in the wearables field, but as a robust secure OS to go into other markets I don’t see anything.”

“Tizen is just Linux with a few frameworks on top with a real focus on HTML5 and web applications. Does that make it secure? No.”

Once of the advantages Dodge cites for QNX is that every line has been written by his own team

“It doesn’t have a line taken from Linux, everything is ours. We own the IP and multiple patents.

“Linux can never be certified because it’s SOUP – Source Of Unknown Providence – you cannot certify a base of source that you have no idea of where it came from or the development practices that created it.

“A lot of our customers rely upon not just our intrinsic architecture of our systems but also we have the certification to go into medical devices, military devices and safety systems that the Linuxes just can’t.”

The Microsoft Threat

That Microsoft threatened to put QNX out of business still bemuses Dodge, particularly given the then dominant software giant failed with its Windows CE platform.

“I haven’t had anybody aggressively make those statements because we’ve proven the test of time and people are less foolish today.”

“Microsoft said to us, ‘you can’t compete with us, we’re going to throw x number of people against you.’ We proved them wrong.

Having seen Microsoft off, Dodge and QNX now face a greater challenge – that of turning around BlackBerry’s fortunes by becoming the operating system of the Internet of Things. They have a big task ahead.

Paul Wallbank travelled to New York as a guest of BlackBerry

About the author

Paul Wallbank is the founding editor of Networked Globe and has nearly twenty years experience of working in and reporting on computers, the internet and the future of our connected society.