A ‘magical’ flight under RIM’s wing

Elizabeth Howell
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Longtime Ottawa stalwart QNX sees a renaissance as it powers PlayBook

The old joke is it takes a decade to achieve “overnight” success. For Ottawa’s QNX, it only took three decades to find itself fielding constant calls from Kitchener-Waterloo and Silicon Valley.

Derek Kuhn, QNX's vice-president of sales and marketing.

Founded in 1980, the technology company quietly but surely built up a reputation in reliable operating systems – the type that cannot be permitted to crash, such as those powering automobiles or planes.

With QNX’s technology now operating in 20 million cars worldwide, the company was thrust into the spotlight last year as Research In Motion raced to complete the PlayBook tablet to compete with Apple’s notoriously reliable iPad.

Before long, QNX – then an autonomous arm of Harman International, an audio systems creator – found itself under the ownership of the Waterloo-based BlackBerry manufacturer, tasked with making the PlayBook’s operating platform, following a $200-million acquisition.

“It was pretty magical … basically there was a deal made, but at the same time there was no waiting,” recalled Derek Kuhn, QNX’s vice-president of sales and marketing.

“We just started hiving off a team to experiment with what was possible, and very shortly, there were prototypes.”

As well, QNX quickly began attracting increased attention within Ottawa’s business community, according to the head of the city’s chamber of commerce.

“The QNX partnership (with RIM) is a great synergy because of the operating platform that they have, and it’s well entrenched in Ottawa,” said Erin Kelly, the chamber’s executive director.

“Every company in Ottawa is familiar with them. They’re well-established and they’ve been around for a long time.”

The secret sauce for QNX’s technology comes from a “micro-kernel” architecture, meaning that the core of the operating system can isolate itself if an error occurs, preventing the system from freezing or producing the blue screen of death.

A reputation for reliability helped the company gain aerospace and defence customers, as well as manufacturers of industrial equipment and sports cars.

That kernel only has about 1,000 lines of code, compared with behemoths like Microsoft Windows, QNX says, which typically run to 40 million or 50 million lines.

QNX operates independently of RIM, but still has to abide by some non-disclosure agreements. The firm cannot talk about recent revenue figures – except to say it is growing – nor how many people are on staff.

However, as evidence of how quickly the company’s expanding, QNX officials pointed out they’ve hired 70 employees since June and plan to take on the same number of hires in fiscal 2011.

QNX needs software developers and graphics experts specializing in mobile devices in particular, so much so that it’s attracting attention from job-seekers in Silicon Valley and other tech centres.

“We went from a company that was comfortable here in Kanata, to where we have stacked up people everywhere,” Mr. Kuhn said.

“We had to give homes to people living in California and Europe. Any evening or weekend that you come here now, you see all these guys working away to meet the expectations of what the RIM management team sets out for us. It’s an exciting time, and a really cool time.”

To QNX, RIM’s presence in Ottawa has created a “reverse brain drain.” At the height of the tech bust in Ottawa a decade ago, developers here fled south. Now they’re seeing the opposite.

“For a 30-year-old company, it’s truly unique,” Mr. Kuhn said.

“It’s one that really celebrates the engineer, the developer. It’s one where we can collaborate on an engineering level.”

Organizations: Research In Motion, Apple, Harman International Microsoft Windows

Geographic location: Ottawa, California, Silicon Valley Kanata Europe

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