Late last week, I received the invitation of my dreams: A chance to be shown around the Mercedes F1 racing team’s headquarters and factory in Brackley, Northamptonshire. It’s an unusual invitation for a mobile tech journalist, but it came from a familiar source: BlackBerry. In exchange for being able to wander around the workshops and offices, all I had to do was get down there and listen in on a brief about how the two companies worked together. And I have to say, I was impressed.
Whenever you see a brand name associated with a sports team, celebrity or any other kind of endorsement, the immediate response is often cynical. And quite rightly.
We’ve seen Alicia Keys’ - during her time as BlackBerry’s “creative director” - tweeting from her iPhone. And let’s not forget Oprah Winfrey’s “I love the Surface” tweet “sent from my iPad”. It’s often painfully obvious that the tech company involved is just telling the celebrity or team to say nice things about the sponsor. And while there’s obviously money involved in the Mercedes F1/BlackBerry partnership, I couldn’t help but realize that there’s a lot more to it than that. These guys actually use BlackBerries. All the time.
Chief among Mercedes’ BlackBerry fans is Toto Wolff, the team’s Executive Director. Those of you who follow Formula 1 racing will know him as the team’s most public face. And of all the high-ups in the Silver Arrows team, he’s the one who does all the TV interviews, pre and post-race. Leaving Paddy Lowe to focus on the technical stuff.
Toto carries no less than three BlackBerry phones. One for personal, one for his F1 team and another for his other investments. One of which is an old favorite 97-series, QWERTY equipped device running BBOS 7. The other two: Q10 and Passport. And although he was clearly prepared for today’s briefing, you could tell he enjoys everything BlackBerry has to offer: Productivity, Security, Communication and Collaboration. BB’s 4 key focus points.
Like many BlackBerry fans, he loves the physical keyboard, noting that it’s more accurate.
“I have the Passport, which is really good, because it’s replaced my MacBook…” He stated, claiming that it’s perfect for keeping an eye on important documents on the fly, without the need for a portable computer. “And then I have a work phone that’s a BlackBerry, and a business phone that’s a BlackBerry. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.” As BlackBerry diehards go, I'd say he ranks highly.
In the world of Formula 1, security is paramount. In a competitive world where your fiercest rivals are sharing the same space, you need to know that no one can listen in on your calls, or get in to your messages. And so BB’s built-in security standards are a huge plus for Mercedes AMG. He noted that BBM is the default way he and the other executive director, Paddy Lowe (pictured above) communicates. BlackBerry and its services are used in the daily lives of the racing teams’ two most senior staff. And it goes deeper.
Team members create group chats, and channels to share vital updates about the car engine and race performance. The IT team, in particular, uses it perhaps the most extensively. With each race, there’s a team of people dedicated to getting their computer and communications systems up and running. An interesting anecdotal story from the IT Director, Matt Harris reveals that on one occasion, they had to use a BBM video call to talk IT technicians through the step-by-step process of what they needed to put together, and in what order. Literally using the phone’s camera as an eye so that the team back at the UK base could see what they were seeing and guide them through. They're also integrating iOS devices using BES10 for certain tasks. But, although they've tested Android, the security implications mean that the top IT guy isn't keen on pushing that in to widespread use in the company.
And yes, like any company sponsored brief, today's laid-back affair featured a clear set of topics and features that BlackBerry wanted to be mentioned. BBM, the Hub, EBBM, the BBM channel for the F1 team (3rd largest channel on BBM), the upcoming BES 12 enterprise solution, recent acquisitions, BlackBerry Balance and all the other bits that emphasized the company’s focus points. But it wasn’t cringeworthy. It never felt like an exaggerated pitch. Wolff and Harris were both pretty relaxed and honest about their use of BlackBerry. It was about as far removed from the over-the-top Samsung pitches as a casual chat over coffee.
What made that clear was right at the beginning of Matt Harris’ interview in which he openly shared that he struggled to get to grips with the Hub initially. It wasn’t an easy process. Trying to figure out how to use it in a way that suits you is hard, and can sometimes feel unintuitive. Having all of your notifications in one place and trying to manage them can be frustrating. I know that from first hand experience. But it can also be super useful, once you tailor it to your needs/wants.
In short: Mercedes F1 uses BlackBerry phones as their primary communication tools. The IT team alone has 200 of them dished out to all the technicians and team members. The team’s two top execs use them. One of them, Wolff, a clear BlackBerry fan won’t even let go of his old one, despite attempts to upgrade him to a BB10 device. (We're told that may change when the Classic’s here.)
RIM may have long gone, with its attempt at cracking the consumer market. But I have a lot of respect for the reinvented, enterprise-focussed BlackBerry. It’s going back to doing what it has always done best: Making phones that help busy people stay productive, in a secure and reliable manner. And it’s helping a world-championship winning F1 team do its business better in the process.
Are you in a business that uses BlackBerry? Or do you still use one as your main device? Let us know in the comments.