John Chen calls for app neutrality

BlackBerry CEO John Chen has taken to the Inside BlackBerry Blog to share his thoughts on Net Neutrality and something he calls 'App Neutrality'.

The post is adapted from a letter sent to the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, John Thune, the Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Fred Upton, and Ranking Committee Members, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, and U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr.

While Chen hits on topics such as the definition of net neutrality and carrier neutrality, it is perhaps his comments on app and content neutrality that will grab the most attention.

Application/Content Neutrality - BlackBerry has been in the midst of a turnaround since I took over as Executive Chairman and CEO in November 2013. During the past 15 months the company has stabilized and introduced a variety of new products as we pivot away from our prior reliance on hardware to become a full-service, device-agnostic provider of highly secure and productive software and services. Our balance sheet is strong and our turnaround is proceeding apace.

Key to BlackBerry's turnaround has been a strategy of application and content neutrality. For example, we opened up our proprietary BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service in 2013, making it available for download on our competitors' devices. 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.

Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality. 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 dynamic 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. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.

Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. 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.

There's part of me that agrees with this, but there's also another part of me that reads this and thinks John Chen might be slightly crazy or there's a broader explanation needed here. It's true that when it comes to apps, developers don't always build for all platforms, and Apple is a prime example of that. Everyone builds apps for Apple, including BlackBerry, Microsoft, and Google, but Apple doesn't build any apps for their mobile competitors.

If John Chen had his way, this would change, and everyone would be sharing everything regardless of what mobile OS they were using. I'd love to see more apps on the BlackBerry platform, as I'm sure many of you all would as well, but I'm not sure government mandate is the best way to make that happen. What do you think?