This article is provided by BRC Associate Member, BlackBerry.


These days, enterprise asset intelligence is more important than ever. As more and more employees work from home, and more organizations leverage remote staff, the need for visibility both at and beyond a business’ edge becomes increasingly critical. That’s where Zebra Technologies comes in. 

A global leader in Enterprise Asset Intelligence, Zebra manufactures a wide range of purpose-built solutions, including mobile computers, barcode scanners, specialty printers, RFID readers, real-time location systems, and specialized software. Zebra works with clients all around the world, offering its expertise to industries that include retail, transportation, logistics, energy, utilities, and the public sector.

Our enterprise asset intelligence vision is centered around keeping every asset and worker in an enterprise’s operations visible, connected, and fully optimized,” says Victor Salmons, Vice President of Engineering in Zebra’s Specialty Printing Group. “We’ve been helping our customers achieve that for more than 50 years. We have, among other things, helped address issues with food safety across the supply chain, increased bed turns in hospitals and helped modernize warehousing and distribution centers.

BlackBerry QNX gives us a competitive advantage and helps us satisfy our customers. Our best engineers are now focused on bringing added value to applications.

– Victor Salmons, Vice President of Engineering, Specialty Printing Group, Zebra Technologies

In Pursuit of an Enhanced Solution

Thermal barcode printers from Zebra are key components of its customers’ solutions, each day delivering high-performance, reliable and consistent output. If you’ve received an e-commerce shipment, returned a rental vehicle, or filled a prescription, you have most likely seen a label or receipt created on a Zebra printer.

Salmons knew that thermal printers held a unique position, serving squarely in the middle of tens of thousands of transactions per day. If they could do more than print, they would play a significant part in helping Zebra’s end user community maximize their performance.

“This was our moment of realization,” notes Salmons. “We had decades of experience designing and developing rugged thermal printers, and now we knew they could deliver even more benefits.”

This new mission called for enhanced connectivity, intelligence, and security capabilities, including the ability to deliver data to analytics platforms. It also called for commonality; Zebra needed to deliver the same capabilities on multiple printer form factors, including stationary, mobile, and compact printers.

“This required a unique solution,” recalls Salmons. “A firmware-style approach was not going to get the job done. We needed a real-time operating system, capable of running on 50 or more printer types, to deliver what our end-user community needed.”

A common printer operating system was the keystone. With a single intelligent, secure, and flexible operating system (OS), Zebra could change how new printers were developed, set up, secured, and used. New features could be quickly created and rolled out across the entire Zebra printer family. A common printer user interface – maximizing easy set up and operation – could be created and equally implemented on both printers, and related software packages. Thermal printers could even run apps, extending their contribution far beyond printing.

Implementing a New Vision

With this new mission in mind, Zebra’s specialty printing team set a plan in motion to change the way printers were developed and what they could do.

The team’s first step involved selecting a standard microprocessor architecture. To avoid vendor lock-in, the company wanted an architecture that was offered and supported by multiple vendors. It also sought a processor line that would satisfy customers at multiple price points, and one that would allow its developers to easily port software to reduce development time.

After reviewing these hardware criteria, the team chose the ARM processor architecture.

Next, the team kicked off an evaluation of a dozen commercial operating systems. There were four main attributes they needed in an OS:

  • Real-time capability and reliability. Zebra’s printers deliver mission-critical, on-demand printing day and night, and therefore must always be available and accessible.
  • Security. Adding connectivity to systems that deal with potentially sensitive data necessitated a secure OS.
  • Microkernel architecture. Zebra needed something flexible to keep up with the changing connectivity expectations of its customers. The team must be able to share or quickly add off-the-shelf components like drivers and file systems at scale across all printer categories, without having to touch the kernel.
  • Board support packages (BSPs). A commercial OS typically has a library of board support packages that provide an abstraction layer of hardware-specific features to better facilitate its implementation. Choosing an OS with existing BSPs for its hardware/architecture choices would allow the specialty printer team to use both development time and resources more efficiently.

“We wanted an OS vendor with a broad set of BSPs so we could get our products up and running quickly,” says Salmons. “We also recognized that the ability to mix and match the software components and capabilities while keeping the microkernel the same would give us a market advantage.”

With these requirements in mind, Zebra’s specialty printing group selected BlackBerry QNX and its QNX® Neutrino® Real-time Operating System as the software foundation for Zebra printers.

“We realized that ARM processors and QNX together formed the basis of a powerful platform architecture strategy,” says Salmons. “After our decision was finalized, we built the architecture first. We then took the time to get it right, outside of a product development program, so we didn’t create undue pressure.”

Our group now releases four times more new products with the same staff. We’re much more efficient at delivering value.

– Victor Salmons, Vice President of Engineering, Specialty Printing Group, Zebra Technologies

An Investment in the Future

The QNX real-time microkernel OS is now the power behind Zebra’s proprietary software stack known as Link-OS, which has spawned an ecosystem of apps, software tools, and software development kits. With ready-made BSPs and a microkernel architecture that allowed them to use the same software components and drivers across products, Salmons and his colleagues can now deploy new hardware faster than ever before. Zebra Technologies now runs more than 50 specialty printers on the QNX-ARM-based Link-OS.

“We’ve improved our development cycles,” Salmons explains. “What used to take weeks, we can now do in days or hours. By taking advantage of off-the-shelf drivers or software components that already exist, we can pull features together easily, allowing our developers to do more.”

“Cloud, security, IoT protocols – we can develop much more efficiently because our best engineers are now available for feature development instead of OS maintenance,” he continues. “They have more time to focus on innovation.”

“BlackBerry QNX has provided us with a real-time operating system that is the software foundation for a broader ecosystem,” Salmons concludes. “We’ve used it to deliver added value to our customers, giving them the ability to be more productive. The integration and consistency of the ecosystem also build trust and deliver business results – it’s been a great outcome for Zebra.”

For more information, visit and follow @QNX_News on Twitter.