Is Black the New... Boeing?

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Without much fanfare, Boeing - one of the world's two largest aircraft manufacturers and one of the world's largest defense contractors - released a Web page of its new smartphone, Boeing Black. Based on a variant of Android (it helps to modify something that is already open-source and has a permissible Apache license), the phone is intended to be a secure usage and communications tool for government and military personnel.

This type of product was inevitable. As privacy has become more and more of an issue, and as people have become acutely aware of how much information their phones were storing both onsite and in the cloud, and especially with the ongoing leaks of NSA snooping, the desire for a truly secure phone, especially by government and corporate entities, is undoubtedly high.

The question, of course, is, why Boeing? They have no history as a handset or phone manufacturer; they've never made a personal computer or variant of any kind; they've never made personal electronics; they don't even have real experience with user interfaces.

If you look at Boeing's products page for the Defense, Space & Security Division, you will find airplanes, bombs, missiles, satellites. Financially, Boeing makes customer products on contract, with R&D paid for by a customer, not large-scale manufacture devices paid for by the company on risk, covered by gross margins. Structurally, Boeing is built around big products that are designed in big projects. An F-18 is so utterly different from a smartphone in every aspect, that it is hard to believe a project manager or financial director for one would want to ask for career-derailing failure by taking on the other. Professionally, people work at companies like Boeing for many years, and often have seniority. Smartphone companies, especially the software manufacturers, work with a younger and more mobile workforce.

The one company I would have expected to come up with this offering is... Motorola.

Motorola has been making military communications gear - originally radio, then digital - for decades. When I served, my radio was made by Motorola. Further, Motorola has made consumer mobile communications gear for many years as well. It is no longer a leader, the way it was in the days of its famous StarTAC, but it still has the know-how. Although it was split into Mobility and Solutions, the acquisition closer integration of Mobility into Google actually gives it closer access to Android and engineers who really get software and user operating systems.

Boeing does have one key advantage over most others: its salesforce. Boeing knows how to sell into the military and intelligence community. The problem is, its sales process is not built around these handsets.

Of course, Motorola has the same skills, but around large-scale manufactured products. Boeing sells 200 F-18s; Motorola sells one million radios.

Who would you want to be building smartphones?