BlackBerry's Chen Thinks Net Neutrality Should Be Expanded to Apps

BlackBerry's CEO John Chen says net neutrality is good, but companies like his need similar protections so that developers market their apps for more than just Android and iOS users.

As BlackBerry continues to battle back in the super-competitive mobile marketplace after losing its enterprise sales edge to iPhones and Android smartphones since 2007, CEO John Chen is leaving no idea off the table. Now he's taking app developers to task for not releasing their apps for BlackBerry users, which he says puts his company at a big disadvantage.

To solve that problem, Chen is proposing that companies such as BlackBerry should have app neutrality, which he says is sort of like net neutrality in that it would create an even playing field by mandating that apps be offered for all mobile operating systems instead of just for the most popular OSes.

Chen made his proposal in a Jan. 21 post on the BlackBerry Blog, in which he calls for governments to regulate this issue just like net neutrality rules will regulate the Internet.

"U.S. President Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler have put net neutrality back on the front burner with their recently announced support for reclassifying both wireline and wireless broadband as Title II services," wrote Chen in his post, which was adapted from a letter he sent to several congressional leaders on the topic.

While supporting the idea of net neutrality and equal access to the Internet for all users, Chen wrote that "BlackBerry believes policymakers should focus on more than just the carriers, who play only one role in the overall broadband internet ecosystem." In addition, regulators must also look at content and app developers, where open access is just as important, wrote Chen. "Banning carriers from discriminating but allowing content and applications providers to continue doing so will solve nothing."

With that in mind, BlackBerry, which is based in Canada, seeks such protections because they are needed as the company continues its turnaround after several years of declining sales and revenue as it lost ground to the surge of iPhones and Android phones in the enterprise and consumer markets, wrote Chen.

"Key to BlackBerry's turnaround has been a strategy of application and content neutrality," including the opening up of its proprietary BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service in 2013 to competitors and other devices, wrote Chen. "Tens of millions of iPhone and Android customers around the world have since downloaded BBM and are enjoying the service free of charge. Last year we introduced our secure BES12 mobile device management software, once again designed to manage not just BlackBerry phones but also available for enterprises and government agencies whose employees use iPhone and Android devices."

Now, Chen wants similar accommodations from app developers so that they create BlackBerry versions of their apps for Chen's users. "Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality," he wrote. "Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple's iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users."

This has "created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems," which isn't fair, wrote Chen. "These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level."

To fix this and make the situation more equitable, "neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory Internet," wrote Chen. "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."

Analysts Weigh In

Two industry analysts who spoke with eWEEK said that while they can understand Chen's frustrations, it's ironic that he wants government action to be taken now. In BlackBerry's heyday, when it dominated the enterprise mobile space in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chen never would have suggested that developers develop their apps for all platforms, said Dan Maycock, an analyst with Transform Digital.