The Waterloo, Ont.-based company unveiled the foundation of its Internet of Things platform on Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, marking the first step towards building a service BlackBerry believes will be a gateway to growth for its business.
BlackBerry will provide hardware and software support for cloud-based communications boxes built into shipping containers.
Each device will include a cellular radio, Wi-Fi connectivity, a microprocessor and sensors that monitor what's in the container, its location and other details to help fleet managers stay on top of their products and anticipate potential problems.
"There's lots of useful information you can collect to get more efficient," said Sandeep Chennakeshu, president of the BlackBerry's Technology Solutions unit in a telephone phone interview from CES.
"(The communication box is) very similar to a cell phone, except it doesn't have a display or a keypad. That's right up our alley."
An early test was completed in October and plans are underway to make the devices available in "limited specific-use cases" in April, Chennakeshu said.
BlackBerry (TSX:BB) has been looking for new ways to grow after losing its dominance of the smartphone market.
Over the past year, under the leadership of chief executive John Chen, the company has undergone a dramatic change in priorities and refocused mostly on large contracts with businesses, rather than chasing individual users.
BlackBerry has also looked for other ways to use its existing technology in new ways. A foray into the growing popularity of the Internet of Things business is just one of a number of new initiatives.
The Internet of Things describes the technology which connects objects to wireless networks, whether it's a person's smartphone to their fridge, or a trucking company to its fleet.
The latter example is where BlackBerry says there's plenty of growth potential this year.
Chennakeshu said the current systems used by the shipping industry are "a little archaic and not scalable."
"It's a very large business, in the tens of billions of dollars, with very low penetration."
Chasing the trucking industry is only part of BlackBerry's bigger plan for the Internet of Things platform, which incorporates technology made by QNX Software Systems, the division that already makes interactive systems built into vehicle dashboards.
BlackBerry also sees opportunity to sell similar technology to automakers, who could install sensors in cars to detect mechanical problems and notify drivers when they need to get their vehicle serviced.
Also Wednesday, the company announced its software will be used in the next generation of the HBox, a device made by U.S.-based medical technology company NantHealth, which BlackBerry acquired a minority stake in last April.
The HBox operates as a hub between mobile devices and the servers of health care companies, serving as part of an encrypted pipeline to transfer medical records between doctors and medical care centres.
BlackBerry also unveiled a modified version of its BlackBerry Passport designed for AT&T. The new design, which incorporates rounded edges to the rectangular device, will be released later this year in the U.S. There are no immediate plans to make it available in Canada.
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