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BlackBerry to turn BBM secure-messaging system into subscription service

BlackBerry Ltd. is preparing to turn its once-proprietary secure-messaging system into a subscription service for app developers.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

BlackBerry Ltd. is preparing to turn its once-proprietary BBM secure-messaging system into a subscription service that app developers can build into their software to allow for seamless, encrypted communications.

The company didn't offer any specifics on the cost of a BBM Enterprise SDK (software-development kit) user subscription, nor how much revenue the venture is expected to generate. Chief operating officer Marty Beard called it an "entirely new business for the company, we can scale very large here … we wouldn't be announcing it if we didn't think it would be material."

At its peak, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company's encrypted e-mail and messaging system was the gold standard for security for enterprise and government customers, providing secure access for as many as 90 million users. The technology was also once a competitive edge for BlackBerry smartphones, a category the company helped to pioneer. The new SDK is compatible with the smartphone operating systems of former handset rivals Apple iOS and Google Android.

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Mr. Beard positioned the IP-based system as superior to similar services offered by competitors such as Twilio – which booked $257-million (U.S.) in revenue for 2016 – that rely at least in part on SMS. He also thinks BlackBerry's pricing model will be better received than the usage-based models some competitors employ.

"There can be some sticker shock associated with that," he said, adding that there will be tiers of the service available – one for messaging only, and another that includes encrypted voice and video.

The consumer edition of BBM – which has weaker security standards – has been available as a standalone app for some time and the collection of secure software now known as BBM Enterprise will still be sold directly to enterprises looking for those services.

BlackBerry's security credentials have come under fire in recent years after reports surfaced that the company had shared encryption keys with the RCMP in the course of a criminal inquiry. The company has maintained that the messages of its enterprise users have not been subject to government snooping.

Developers who deploy the BBM SDK will be asked to generate their own encryption keys, meaning BlackBerry will not have the ability to turn over to law enforcement any messages sent through this system, even if compelled by a court order. Under this model any company that employed BBM messaging in an app would be responsible for the security of its own encryption keys.

The product will be available this month, BlackBerry said. Some partners in health care, telecommunications and financial services have been testing messaging integrations.

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