The new Blackberry 10 device is launching today morning. A conversation  with  Dr. Ronjon Nag, vice president of the Blackberry App World and Intelligent Systems.

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[By Sudarshana Banerjee]

  • Five-six devices this year
  • A Blackberry for every price range
  • Best physical/soft keyboard ever
  • Own Maps application
  • Over 70,000 apps
  • Why RIM did not consider Android

Dr. Ronjon Nag is responsible for strategies and deployment of the Blackberry App World app store, mobile advertising, NFC, mobile payments, context and analytics, Blackberry Travel, Blackberry Maps and location-based Services. He is playing a crucial role in Blackberry 10, RIM’s next generation operating system, which the company will unveil on Wednesday.

Here are excerpts from a recent conversation we had at TiE, Santa Clara:

Tell us something about the Blackberry 10 devices that are coming up.

I can not share a lot of details, but I can tell you this, the Blackberry 10 devices will have the best keyboard ever,  both the physical keyboard and the soft keyboard.

Now, most of the market is leaning toward a touch-screen keyboard, but speed is a concern with soft keyboards. Plus, we believe our users will want a larger screen to do Web browsing, and people who have used Blackberry love the keyboard.

Among the best things about our keyboard is you will see a predictive next word showing up on the keyboard as the user types.

The touch screen will let you peek without leaving the application you are in, with a smooth flow from one screen to another. The Blackberry Messaging system will support voice. All the devices will be NFC-enabled. We have forged relationships with over 600 carriers worldwide.

We  will also have the best in class work-home partition. Security and mobile device management is out of the box in the devices, integrated on the server.

How are you positioning the devices? Will there be a separate Blackberry 10 device for the enterprise, and a different consumer phone?

We are not talking about specific positioning before the launch. We will be launching around five-six devices this year, and you will have a Blackberry 10 device for  every price range, from the  lower end, to the higher end.

A lot of government contracts, especially those in the federal government space, seems to be moving away from RIM. Apple has had a few major wins recently…

It depends on the specific federal agencies.  If I were to guess, I’d say 80% of  agencies use Blackberry devices. People are comfortable with the Blackberry environment.

We are very strong in emerging markets. In the US we have lost market share..  but our new devices should sell more than the old devices.

How many Blackberry 10 apps will be there in Blackberry World?

I can not give you a specific number, but we should have over 70,000 apps at the time of the launch.

That is not a whole lot of apps, when you consider Apple App Store for example with some 800,000 apps or Android with some 600,000 apps.

I think what matters more than the number of apps is the kind of apps you have. Do you really need 2,000 different Solitaire apps, or some 3,000 Sudoku apps? We will launch with apps you will find useful, including our own photography/photo-editing app.

When the first Macintosh machines hit the market, a lot of people thought they will not be successful, because they do not run Windows applications. The dynamics today are similar.

What about a maps app?

Blackberry has its own maps application.

Do you test your apps before you push them out?

We do a fair amount of testing.  We are also accepting apps from a wide variety of platforms – Java, C++, HTML5, Android, and so on,

BB10

How hard was it building an operating system from scratch?

It takes roughly five years to develop an operating system, and we are did a fair bit of leapfrogging. You should see the results. RIM needed a better browser, so it acquired a browser company (Torch Mobile).  RIM acquired our company, Cellmania, for a better app store experience; RIM acquired the mobile OS company QNX Software.

A lot of companies face a market challenge, and give up. RIM has been doing an incredible job. The company has either developed its own thing, or made acquisitions where it needed to be stronger. It is intellectually interesting turning around companies.

By the way, do you know RIM is just a 30-year old company? A lot of people do not realize that.

Editor’s note: RIM has acquired a dozen companies since 2010, from organizations that develop office suites, to companies in the social calendaring and gaming space, to mobile device management and video/content providers.

Did RIM consider building devices running on Android?

Lots of people wonder why RIM is not making Android phones. Well, no other company than Samsung is making money from Android devices. Plus, there are hundred other people in the Android space, but RIM is the only company with Blackberry, we have a much tighter integration.

We have a strong installed base, and RIM has been good at making money after the actual sales.

What is your strategy, going forward?

Carriers are our main channel. Traditionally, Blackberry launches have not involved much of chest beating, not outright, at any rate. We have always let the users come to us. This time around, we have a new CMO, and RIM is being more aggressive. We will be advertising aggressively, be more involved with how the products are placed in the Best Buys of the world.

What do you think will be the next big disruption in the mobile space?

I think health care is ripe for disruption. Think about it, with a smart phone, you have a full computer with you all the time. You can measure heart rate/medical data continuously, especially when a yearly medical checkup may not be enough. The primary mode of communications between various medical organizations is still fax, a smart phone can change all that.

Right now, the FDA is looking at how to deal with medical apps and their interpretation of sensor data.

Last but not the least.. what would be your advice to the entrepreneurs who are starting on their own today?

We are living in a great age. Lots of things are possible today; there are more opportunities, more companies, more imagination.

a] Make your own luck, by talking to lots of people.

b] It is more important to build the right product, than the wrong product at half the price.

c] People talk about failing fast, and I see their point of view; but I think sticking to what you do is important too. Finish what you start.

d] Remember, the technology business changes quite rapidly, unlike the juice business or the hamburger business. Timing is important.

e] Do not burn bridges.

f] Just show up!

“Don’t panic,” says Dr. Ronjon Nagvice president, Research in Motion (RIM). “It may take you three years to get a deal, but your technology will be there for a decade.” Hundreds of millions of mobile devices have shipped with a predictive text entry system Dr. Nag created for Lexicus, a company he started and subsequently sold to Motorola.“We got pennies out of the transaction – but there were billions of transactions,”  Dr. Nag talks fondly of Cellmania, the wireless applications company he co-founded next with Neerav Berry, a fellow entrepreneur. Research in Motion (RIM) acquired Cellmania in 2010 for an undisclosed sum, hiring both gentlemen in the process.Dr. Nag was born and brought up in Britain. He studied engineering in college, and did his doctorate on speech and speaker recognition, using hidden Markov models and vector quantization. He then went to the Sloan School of Management at MIT, where he worked on stock market predictions using neural networks. Dr. Nag finished his education at Stanford University, where he was a Harkness Fellow, researching handwriting and speech recognition, as part of the Cognitive Science department.That was 1992, when there were only a handful of mobile giants like Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, or AT&T; everything was closed, and innovation was very, very difficult unless you were a large corporation. With the $12,000 student stipend almost running out, Dr. Nag decided to start his own company.Lexicus dealt with the problem of how to get data into device. Among other things, Dr. Nag was working on handwriting recognition. “The problem of cursive writing, is similar to the problem of continuous speech, “ says Dr. Nag. “We had to figure out where one ended, and the other began.”Bill Gates demonstrated his solution at a Microsoft event. He was also featured on the cover of Fortune magazine. Three months later, Motorola came knocking, loaning the company money, even as they were negotiating a deal.Dr. Nag joined Motorola when his company was acquired, first working as vice president and general manager, and later, founding the company’s Human Interface Labs. In the process, software designed by him began shipping on hundreds of millions of Motorola devices.His next startup was a company he founded with a fellow entrepreneur introduced to him by his wife. Neerav Berry, a graduate from IIT Delhi in India, did his MS from UC Santa Barbara, and followed it up with a UC Berkeley MBA. He was working as a senior director in Broadvision, after stints in LSI Logic, Synopsys, and Oracle, when their wives started discussing how their respective husbands wanted to build their own company. Cellmania was founded in April 1999. Mr. Berry is also part of RIM now, after the Cellmania acquisition in 2010, and is vice president of App World and Payments.

[Image courtesy: Dr. Ronjon Nag, Research in Motion]

Edited: 08-15-13