Digital Life

BlackBerry maker faces tough uphill app battle

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion is in a rut. Its market share in smartphones continues to fall in light of strong competition from Apple and Google's Android in both consumer and enterprise markets.

The reality is big corporates are starting to allow employees to bring their own choice of device to work and they are not choosing BlackBerries.

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins shows off a prototype device running the company's BlackBerry 10 software at BlackBerry World ...
RIM CEO Thorsten Heins shows off a prototype device running the company's BlackBerry 10 software at BlackBerry World conference in Orlando, Florida. 

So can the company claw back the market share it desperately needs to survive with its new BlackBerry 10 platform? Or will its new platform go the way of Nokia's almost stillborn MeeGo operating system and HP's WebOS, which were both abandoned relatively soon after being launched?

The new platform, a sneak peak of which was given to a large audience at the company's annual BlackBerry World conference in Orlando, Florida, last week, is sleek. That much is for sure. But it won't be available until later this year on a new set of smartphones RIM is yet to unveil. In the meantime, the question remains as to whether app developers, one of the most important parts of any smartphone's ecosystem, will support it.

Perhaps the most recent indication of whether they will, lies in a March survey from Appcelerator and IDC, which showed that less than 16 per cent of developers were "very interested" in creating programs for RIM devices, compared with 90 per cent for Apple and 80 per cent for Android. That's before they got a sneak peak of what BlackBerry 10 has to offer.

RIM will of course now be hoping to turn that 16 per cent figure around. It showed that it was already working with some of its existing partners to ensure content and apps are available when BlackBerry 10 devices are launched.


To try and make sure other developers support BlackBerry 10 before the big reveal, RIM announced it would be handing out about 2000 prototype devices at its BlackBerry 10 Jam conference, a sister convention running alongside BlackBerry World. Named the “BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha”, the device didn't contain the final BlackBerry 10 operating system, but a version created for the purpose of testing BlackBerry 10 apps.

Although much of the tech media welcome the device with cynicism because it contained barely any of the new features announced by RIM in BlackBerry 10, it's a smart move by the company to seed the prototype into the hands of developers before the real devices are launched. It will give the developers a chance to port any of the apps they may have made for BlackBerry's PlayBook tablet - which currently boasts about 15,000 apps - to the new smartphone platform and will also give them the time they need to re-create and re-code the apps they may have made for BlackBerry's older smartphone platforms that won't be compatible with the new platform.

RIM also announced it would be guaranteeing developers of certified apps $US10,000 in sales in an app's first year to encourage them to write apps for its new platform, a strategy that echoes Microsoft's move to attract developers to its Windows Phone platform by financing certain versions of well-known apps.

To qualify for the $US10,000 an app must earn a minimum of $US1000 though the developer's own marketing efforts and have met RIM's quality threshold (so no fart apps).

Senior director of BlackBerry's development platform, Christopher Smith, told Fairfax Media that the guarantee was about RIM “standing behind” and supporting developers.

“We're starting with a new subscriber-base [with BlackBerry 10] and we know that developers, when they approach a platform, have choices. They choose to invest their time and energy based on an understanding of a return on their investment,” he said. If certified apps didn't make it to $US10,000 in sales in their first year, RIM would cover the difference, he added.

Two representatives Fairfax spoke to for app development firms in Australia who attended RIM's conference said they couldn't wait to get their hands on the prototype device.

One of them, Michael Fishpool, managing director of Sydney-based Fish Vision, said in the past it was “challenging” to develop apps for BlackBerry smartphones. 

“But now it's becoming more unified and obviously it is going to be a much easier approach, I'm sure,” he said. “You can already see 100 per cent that that is the case.”

He added that transitioning or moving into BlackBerry 10 would potentially be more cost-effective for a company based on the app development tools available.

Fishpool's firm works with companies in Australia to bring their mobile and web app ideas to fruition. He worked on the Fairfax Media's Good Food Guide 2011 app for BlackBerry for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Asked about the take-up rate of the Fairfax app, he said it wasn't enormous. “But that's probably representative of [BlackBerry's] market share in Australia.”

The other Australian app developer Fairfax spoke to, Paul Haenel, works as the tech lead for creating BlackBerry apps at Tiger Spike's office in Melbourne. The firm makes its own entertainment and news apps, as well as bespoke ones for governments and corporations.

He said RIM's new BlackBerry 10 platform was “very fresh” and that he would look to build apps for it. “It's very user-engaging compared to the previous operating system.”

Haenel added he believed RIM will have another shot in the Australia market with its new operating system.

“They have a chance to come back again in that market. It's very iOS and Android-dominated at this stage. But I think they can come back because the trend I have seen in the mobile space in Australia is that it's turning into Android because people want something different than anybody else. iOS is dominating, yes, but the trend is sort of moving to something else and I think Blackberry 10 will definitely play a big role in that.”

This remains to be seen, however, with RIM at last count only securing about 5 per cent of the Australian overall smartphone market in 2011, according to IDC market analyst Aman Bajaj.

Nick Dillon, analyst of devices and platforms at research firm Ovum, believes in order to succeed RIM will need to secure the Top 1000 apps seen on other platforms like Android and iOS.

“The priority is the big brands. That's what you really need to get onboard - the kind of stuff that's going to stop someone buying the device because they can't get an app. The long tail will follow and that's something you can't really get there in time for launch," Dillon said.

Whether or not RIM's BlackBerry 10 platform can secure these top apps is difficult to predict. Smartphones based on it later this year may have the best operating system going around, but if there are no familiar apps on them, RIM will have a difficult time convincing people to buy one.

The writer travelled to BlackBerry World in Orlando, Florida as a guest of RIM.

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