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March 3rd, 2015

Blackphone Wants To Be The Next Apple … And Has The Chutzpah To Pull It Off

Silent Circle also puts BlackBerry on notice.

With a straight face and a hint of a smile in his eyes, Silent Circle CEO Bill Conner tells me that his company is the next Apple.

“I see us more as a next generation for Apple. For Apple reinvented the ease of computing and how you live, work and play. That’s where we’re at,” Conner said.

You’ve got to give it to Silent Circle … the company has chutzpah.

Silent Circle is the maker of Blackphone, a series of smartphones and software that promise end-to-end privacy and security. Blackphone is a rocket ship, booking nearly $750 million in contract sales to enterprises after only two-plus years in business. The first Blackphone launched at Mobile World Congress in 2014 and Silent Circle was on various lists as one of the best innovations of the year.

“You are not going to see us get excited about sticks for selfies,” Conner said. “You are not going to see us talk about candy coloring on our phones. You are not going to see us dunk our phones in water.”

Conner is full of brass for his new endeavor. Conner says that Blackphone is the new Apple. He says that BlackBerry is basically dead and that Silent Circle will eventually be the one to put it to bed. Silent Circle promises that it is a no frills company, dedicated to privacy of both consumers and enterprises, the new security standard in an age when everything and anything can be hacked.

“Our belief is that you have to go to next generation architecture, like mobile that is more secure in some ways but it still has its liabilities,” Conner said. “We are trying to intercept the next generation architectures from devices to application suites to the networking services to do that.”

To be fair, Conner—who was appointed CEO of Silent Circle in January—is partly just trying to boost the profile of his new company. On the other hand, Blackphone may really deserve the hype, taking mobility and privacy into the next generation.

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Blackphone As The Next Generation Smartphone

The comparison of Blackphone to BlackBerry is specifically apt. BlackBerry’s (when it was still Research In Motion) model for years was to own its own communications network, build devices, sell server-side security with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server and own the communication network with its once-popular Messenger app. BlackBerry stood on those four pillars (network, communications, device, security) for years to dominate the client-server world of pre-iPhone mobility for both consumers and the enterprise.

Bill Conner and Mike Janke address the crowd at the Silent Circle booth at Mobile World Congress.

Bill Conner and Mike Janke address the crowd at the Silent Circle booth at Mobile World Congress.

Really, it is a game that BlackBerry is still trying to win, even if three of its four legs were severed (BES still has some adoption). BlackBerry’s CEO John Chen said at Mobile World Congress that the company is actually ahead in its prospective recovery from several years of layoffs and empty product promises.

Conner is not exaggerating when he says that Silent Circle has the potential to put BlackBerry out of its misery. The three keys to Silent Circle—devices, services and software—play in the exact same space as BlackBerry. The difference is that instead of the client-server model BlackBerry is so desperately clinging to, Blackphone is based on Internet Protocol, VoIP and service paradigm. So the network is taken care of. Silent Circle is essentially a software-as-a-service model taken to its logical (if slightly extreme) conclusion.

“This isn’t about the last five years, it is about the next five years. [BlackBerry is] not relevant to the next five years of the discussion. They do not have the devices, plus apps plus the network that is relevant for the discussion of a ZRTP platform for security where stuff is not stored,” Conner said.

The splash that Silent Circle made at Mobile World Congress this year only had a little to do with the actual products they announced. Two new devices are in the works for later in the year—the Blackphone 2 and a 7-inch tablet/phone called the Blackphone+. Silent Circle will update the PrivatOS, the forked version of Android that runs its devices. A whole set of applications focused on security will come to bear with Silent Phone (VoIP-based), Silent Text, Silent Contacts and Silent Meeting (a conference call app).

From a services perspective, Silent Circle will release an app store where it vets all the apps it allows in for security privacy called Silent Store. Silent World is an encrypted calling plan for users to make calls between other Blackphone users and non-Blackphone users. Silent Manager is a mobile device management service for enterprises.

Can Blackphone Really Be The Next Apple?

Apple was started by two guys in a garage building computers from components they essentially stole from Xerox and bought at the local home computer shop. Silent Circle was started by three men (Mike Janke, Phil Zimmermann, Jon Callas) who were all already heroes of their industries before deciding to build phones.

So, yes. There is an extreme difference.

Conner balks at the idea of being the next BlackBerry because that would mean that Silent Circle is essentially just another enterprise mobility company. And to be sure, the enterprise is where Blackphone is going to make the bulk of its money in the early going. But Blackphone was actually built as a consumer play, built for the (rightfully) paranoid among us concerned that governments and corporations are stealing out privacy and selling us as products to advertisers.

Conner says Silent Circle does not want to abandon the consumer to focus on enterprise. And that its focus on security and privacy gives it a leg up on the behemoth from Cupertino, California.

“It’s both. We started consumer and we are not forgoing it,” Conner said. “Apple is consumer and it is always going to be consumer and they are proprietary. BlackBerry now is ‘oh, we are enterprise and we are trying to be consumer.’ Well, that’s hard. We really see this as a centerpiece. It’s both.”

As for BlackBerry, Conner seems to already be putting Silent Circle’s spiritual predecessor in the rear view … and not looking back.

“They are trying to transition from what they were before to the future. We’re just the future. That is a great place to be.”