A sequel to last year’s pro-privacy Android smartphone Blackphone has just been announced, here at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona.
The Blackphone 2 has a more premium look and feel than the original plastic device, with an all-glass front and rear — reminiscent of the design of Apple’s iPhone 4 — along with a larger full HD display, at 5.5 inches across; a faster 64-bit processor and more RAM. It will go on sale this summer.
The company has also shown a prototype eight-inch tablet device, which will be called the Blackphone+, which it’s lining up for a fall release. Development for this is still at a relatively early stage, with an “extended alpha beta program” planned with partners to “see what it is that they are interested in the tablet doing”, as CTO Jon Callas puts it.
“There’s still a number of decisions that we have about where we can go on it. Like aspect ratio. Do we do 16:9, do we do 4:3,” he tells TechCrunch in an interview.
Blackphone hardware runs a hardened Android fork, called PrivatOS, so it’s also compatible with Android apps. Last December SGP announced it would be adding in its own app store in an update due early this year — along with a feature called ‘Spaces’ that will let users segment activity on their device by creating multiple secure spaces for particular apps, accounts or data to help balance security and usability.
The original Blackphone project was marketed at prosumers with security concerns. But the Switzerland-based company behind it, SGP Technologies, is now thinking a lot bigger — flush with $80 million in external investment it’s taking in since last May. It’s refocusing on selling security-focused mobile hardware and encrypted comms software to enterprises, with prosumers now its secondary target. Call it a partial pivot, after enterprises liked what they saw with last year’s Blackphone and came calling.
“The prosumer market has been our primary market up until now but we’re making a huge push into enterprise,” says Callas. “Enterprise markets in Europe, South America, Middle East is where we’re going rather than what we started off with — which was the prosumer market. They’re still very important to us and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing with Blackphone [hardware]… but in an organization you’re going to have a wide mix of devices.”
“We know that we are not going to have a company buy only Blackphone devices. There are going to be people who are not going to give up their iPhones. There are going to be people who are going to want some sort of other Android phone, so we’re providing the communications ecosystem and infrastructure that works on any of those devices,” he adds.
Blackphone started out last January as a joint venture between encrypted comms company Silent Circle, which offers secure voice and messaging apps such as Silent Phone and Silent Text, and Spanish smartphone maker Geeksphone. But last week Silent Circle announced it had closed $50 million in new financing — largely from new investors — and was spending some of that on buying out its joint-venture partner.
Some of Geeksphone’s staff — including co-founder Javier Agüera — are moving over to the new wholly Silent Circle owned “single, vertically integrated company”, so it’s retaining mobile hardware expertise (with this ex-Geeksphone team based out of Madrid), even as it shifts focus to selling a mixed and integrated suite of secure hardware and software comms services to businesses.
“It makes it much easier on the company — it means there’s one set of marketing, one set of sales, development and everything else is running together. It’s huge savings for us,” says Callas of the consolidation. Bottom line, the project has proved more successful than the original partners envisaged — and the company now has the investment to think bigger, and restructure to focus on serving enterprise customers.
Also today SGP announced a tablet-based secure audio conferencing system called Silent Meeting, again with enterprise users in mind. The encrypted software will also offer meeting control features such as visibility on who’s dialed in and who hasn’t — designed to make the most of the larger screen real estate of tablet hardware.
Silent Meeting will run on the forthcoming Blackphone+ tablet and also, as with all of SGP’s comms apps, on iOS and Android hardware. So this is about Blackphone riding the ‘bring your own’ (BYOD) device trend which is continuing to remodel how enterprise IT is delivered.
“We’re a communications company that has hardware and software and services. There are a lot of people who would like to have a privacy and security enhanced device like what we’re doing with Blackphone. But we’re also focusing on the communications aspect — because we are a secure voice, video, texting system as well that runs on any Android or iOS device,” says Callas.
“We also have enterprise management software so that you can manage multiple accounts… We have done a recent upgrade to our existing management software, we’ll be doing more integration with enterprise tools, with corporate directories, with other things so that you provide cloud communications — that’s primarily what we’ve been doing with Silent Circle — we have a cloud phone system that lets you do secure calls that are IP calls, and also we connect to the normal telephone system.”
It will also be working more with mobile device management (MDM) vendors and other enterprise tool makers “so that we fit into the ecosystem that they’ve got today”, as Callas puts it.
Is Blackphone seeking to reinventing Blackberry on a more consumer-friendly Android base? Callas resists the comparison, arguing that the enterprise space has moved on and needs secure comms solutions to match — i.e. which can flexibly integrate with mixed mobile estates, and support different types of device deployments.
“Blackberry was very much focused on email. We’re focused on voice communications and texting primarily,” he adds. “The comparison between us and Blackberry has gone on a lot over the last year. And Blackberry themselves started it in many ways. I don’t really think a lot about displacing Blackberry; I am looking at how I supply software and services that my customer needs.
“I’m looking at what enterprises need in the next five years, not what they need in the last five years. It’s a dramatically changed world from when Blackberry was the big player. And that’s part of why they’re having problems now.”
There is still no ‘Silent Mail’ product, of course, after Silent Circle preemptively shuttered its previous encrypted email product, back in 2013, in the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about intelligence agency surveillance — although Callas confirmed it is continuing to work with Lavabit’s Ladar Levison on the Dark Mail project. In the meanwhile its focus is squarely on securing the other bits of mobile comms, including text messaging.
“Mobile devices have been taking over from laptops and desktops by doing the sorts of things people do all the time very well. They do small things very well rather than the kitchen sink,” says Callas. “What we’re looking at the way that we do the business is to make it so that the sorts of communications tasks that people do all the time they would rather do with Silent Circle on our services and our devices better than anyone else’s.”
As well as increased enterprise concerns on the security front, with data breaches and hacks continuing to hit the headlines every week, Callas also points to a cost advantage that it’s hoping will appeal to business users — given Silent Phone and Silent Text route voice calls and SMS away from cellular networks and via encrypted VoIP.
“We are providing a combination of very low cost international calling, and completely secure calling using the Internet,” notes Callas. “The advantage of this is that it means that if you have something like the Gemalto hack that we’ve heard about you’re only using your phone for a TCP/IP or you’re running it over Wi-Fi. That gives you a level of security that you don’t get anywhere else because our voice system is running over IP and thus is protected — even from things like compromised SIM cards.”