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BlackBerry’s new technology head Charles Eagan on security, connected cars and the failure of BB10

An employee works at his desk at BlackBerry's Network Operating Centre in Waterloo, Ont. on May 29, 2018.

Mark Blinch/REUTERS

Charles Eagan is back at BlackBerry Ltd., decades after he first got a taste of the software that now serves a central role among the company’s new revenue drivers.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based company named Mr. Eagan as its new chief technology officer in June, after a few months serving as a senior vice-president, but he has a long history with the smartphone pioneer. He first arrived in 2011, back when the company bore the name Research in Motion, running its devices group and bridging the gap between RIM and its then-newly acquired QNX Software Systems. Before that, Mr. Eagan had worked for QNX itself, and before that used its software in the robotics and industrial-control sectors.

During his first stint at BlackBerry, Mr. Eagan was a key player in the launch of BB10 phones – devices meant to challenge the dominance of Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Google’s Android-powered phones. It didn’t work out: The company was left with a mountain of unsold phones, eventually taking a nearly-billion-dollar writedown. Mr. Eagan eventually left for Dyson Inc. to head first its electronics, then its software, divisions.

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Today, software and services account for nine-10ths of BlackBerry’s revenue, while handsets are a tiny slice of its business, their manufacturing farmed out to other companies. Under chief executive John Chen, the company has refashioned itself into a broader data-security business focused on enterprise customers, connected cars and other complex systems. Mr. Eagan, meanwhile, is back, and keen to draw connections between what he sees as BlackBerry’s many software strengths. He spoke to The Globe and Mail in Toronto on Monday.

How does the company look to you now versus when you first joined in 2011?

Building and deploying global, secure devices is pretty hard, and Blackberry has a lot of experience in it. When I left, the device business was not something that was interesting to me. I came back very excited about the software opportunity. We don’t know what the future will require, but there’s a lot of skills from the past that need to be applied as things move into the future. I think we’re well-positioned to help companies navigate that.

What lessons did you learn from the BB10 experience that you want to apply to the company today?

It was an amazing phone against impossible odds. But the importance of an app store, and the complexity of [bring-your-own-device policies] and using phones for lots of non-enterprise things – there were lots of market drivers that affected it. Some of the social media apps were really important to have on the platform, and we did, but it takes a lot of work for third parties to move their technology to your platform.

I spent a two-year hiatus outside of BlackBerry and I got an appreciation for my experience. The fact that we’ve pivoted to software is the most exciting thing. A lot of the lessons I’ve learned have been from running and managing software teams, too. The ways that you build software is changing, so companies like Amazon and Microsoft and Netflix, they’re rolling out very large software releases on a continuous basis, and the ways of doing continuous delivery is something we’re evolving with at BlackBerry.

How might someone outside the business-to-business world be affected by BlackBerry’s secured-connection services?

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In health care, you could have an event triggered from a patient who has lots of vitals being monitored. If something needs attention, not only can you notify medical staff, but you can also do things like sending the elevator to the floor where it needs to be. You could even have medication for treating the emergency automatically triggered before medical attention arrives. Even monitoring the information flow in a hospital – there’s many ways to approach security and privacy, and one of them is making sure your software is up-to-date and in a healthy state. You connect the products: monitoring, triggering, creating workflows on top of it.

QNX technology is now in 120 million vehicles. And this month, the company signed a letter pushing the U.S. Senate to move forward with driverless-car legislation. What do you want to achieve on the automotive side of BlackBerry?

A car is large and complex - right now, there’s probably 10 times the number of CPUs [central processing units] in a car than there were 10 years ago. So the autonomous trend, the connected trend, the scale of the CPU, and systems on the automobile – those are all dramatically becoming large systems that need to be secured. I think the need for trust and the need for careful practices to getting that software down is very similar [to the company’s approach to securing enterprise software]. It’s necessary to solve that in an achievable way in order to make sure that that can be trusted.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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