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BlackBerry's Chen pens letter to U.S. to even the playing field for apps

A BlackBerry Passport smartphone is shown at its official launching event in Toronto, in this September 24, 2014 file photo. Samsung recently offered to buy BlackBerry for as much as $7.5 billion, seeking its valuable patents as it battles Apple in the corporate market, according to a person familiar with the matter and documents seen by Reuters.


John Chen's latest bold play in the turnaround plan for BlackBerry Ltd. might be described as a Hail Mary: He's asking the U.S. government to force Netflix Inc. to make an app for his company's smartphones.

Mr. Chen has jumped into the middle of a U.S. political and business fight over the future of the Internet, involving himself in the Net Neutrality debate in an attempt to broaden that principle's definition to include the software available in BlackBerry's app store.

In a letter to the chairmen of the Senate Committee on Commerce and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Mr. Chen made a case for legislation to level the playing field for apps.

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The chief executive argued, essentially, that the current effort to keep Internet service providers and telecoms from discriminating against or unfairly promoting certain types of content (through throttling or so-called fast lanes) should also create a mandate to end the widespread practice whereby Apple Inc., Google Inc. and even small third-party application makers offer proprietary products that work on certain mobile platforms and not others.

"Neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer," he wrote. "All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer's mobile operating system." Parts of that letter were also published in a blog post.

"He's got a lot of chutzpah. Let's be honest, that's a big leap," said Bob O'Donnell, founder and chief analyst at Technalysis Research. "It's an interesting logical argument; if you were to follow that, you'd say everybody has to build everything for every platform. And that's just not realistic, unfortunately."

Other pundits were less diplomatic. An article in PC World called the idea "profoundly stupid" not to mention attention-seeking. Nilay Patel, editor of technology website The Verge wrote on Twitter: "I think it is now safe to say that BlackBerry CEO John Chen is completely insane."

What Mr. O' Donnell and others have difficulty imagining is a world where every app developer has to build a version not just for BlackBerry, Android, iOS and Windows, but maybe even niche systems such as WebOS, Firefox and Sailfish. How would it be enforced? Who would decide what was a key service or platform? Would they be compensated for the extra work involved?

"If you could say movie services were universally important, like Netflix, that's one thing. Messaging services, I could potentially see something there," Mr. O' Donnell added.

The relative lack of third-party apps and media content have bedevilled BlackBerry phones for years. The company inked a deal in June to bring Amazon's app store to its devices, but its offerings still lag well behind those available on Apple and Android devices.

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Mr. Chen's language was forceful, particularly when he called out Netflix, "which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them."

In 2013, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told The Canadian Press, "We don't currently support streaming on the BlackBerry. It's a unique operating system you have to target, and unfortunately there's just not enough volume for entertainment [apps]. It's a great device for getting work done but people don't interact with it as an entertainment device the same way they do with say an iPhone or Android phone."

The White House and the Federal Communications Commission are in the middle of a scuffle with the Republican-controlled Congress and Senate to define exactly how far the doctrine of neutrality will go, and whether the Internet will be regulated more like a utility.

"Banning carriers from discriminating but allowing content and applications providers to continue doing so will solve nothing," wrote Mr. Chen. Congress has expressed support for consumer protection and fairness, but Mr. Chen's is the first suggestion that such fairness concerns should apply to software.

BlackBerry is a relative newcomer to open software. For years the messaging service BBM was limited to BlackBerry devices, and was marketed as a key selling point for consumers. While Mr. Chen is right when he says BBM is now a cross-platform service, available on all the major mobile device platforms, that is a recent development.

BlackBerry declined to make Mr. Chen available for followup interviews.

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"Right now we're in this world where it's gated by apps," Mr. O'Donnell said. It's possible that the marketplace could shift to more open web-based applications, but so far there has been little sign of that happening for the most valuable apps.

But he also warned that the idea may not sound unworkable among the older, security-conscious lawmakers in Washington, where BlackBerry's influence may be outsized compared with its market reach in the rest of America.

"As small as the BlackBerry's role may be, it's a pretty big one with the guys running the government. Suddenly we're talking about the President's Blackberry."

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