BlackBerry DevCon: RIM’s fighting strong

I was really looking forward to BlackBerry’s DevCon Americas event last week. I was especially interested to take the temperature of the RIM team and the BlackBerry hopeful.

I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter. If you believe any of the media stories circulating recently, RIM is toast. The service outage didn’t help the company’s reputation.

Alec Saunders is their new guy in charge of fixing everything. Or, in other words, “Developer Relations”. No longer a sideshow at RIM, the company has, I think, recognised that it is nothing without apps. Indeed, the services game is becoming such a business critical requirement for handsets nowadays that it’s almost impossible to launch a new handset into market — because you need the ‘ecosystem’ to support it, immediately.

It’s a strange conundrum for RIM, given that they’ve *always* been a service provider — you can’t buy a RIM device and use it properly without first buying the “BlackBerry” bolt-on or service plan. RIM’s been doing services since day one. Just, it’s not packaged in the same manner.

For instance, if you check out the iPhone 4S’s latest addition, Siri, you’ll find it’s voice interaction difficult to ignore. Android’s now got that too. The market’s waiting to see what Windows Phone will offer. Naturally, I expect the same from RIM shortly.

There are so many things RIM needs to get right: Device specification, user interface, price point… And then third-party applications and additional value-add services. Chucking cash at the Angry Birds team works. But until the experience is as-good-as the other platforms, the consumer will rightly assert that it’s not good enough. Witness, for example, the rather limited Evernote version for BlackBerry compared to the iPhone or Android alternative. Or if you really want a shocking experience, try out Instagram on iPhone and then InstaPhoto on BlackBerry. The difference in user experience is unfortunately horrendous.

The fault is with the developers. RIM themselves have created (or supervised) some phenomenally good looking ‘superapps’ for their platform such as Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter. The challenge for developers is investing the time to make their apps look good on RIM’s device portfolio. Most folk don’t bother. So you end up with a series of application abominations in the BlackBerry App World. RIM — unfortunately — is being judged by this bar.

Alec Saunders, the company’s new Developer chap, is working hard to change this. In his keynote he pointed out that RIM has scrapped it’s antiquated Java bollocks. I won’t bore you with the technology, suffice to say that you no longer need 3x rocket scientists at £1,500/day to write your RIM applications. Indeed you can now write phenomenally good looking functional apps with just HTML. Or use a common C framework such as Marmalade.

Alec is on a mission to change minds. He spent a large part of his keynote highlighting that RIM is still alive. Yup. He had to. He explained that the company’s subscribers increase 40% in the last year. Hardly a company that’s dead, eh? He explained that on average, 13% of developers on RIM’s platform are making $100k+ from their apps. RIM’s customers, he said, are downloading apps. Seriously. On average RIM reports each user downloads 24 apps a year. Highly respectable. Alex went through a host of different myths peddled by the market and exploded them. This was important to do.

But — and there is a but — unless RIM gets behind this messaging properly, with significant spend, it’ll all be irrelevant.

The facts don’t lie. People are still buying BlackBerries. RIM is still the number one smartphone maker in dozens of countries. I do mean *dozens*. Like the UK, for example. The new handsets are gorgeous. This is a fact. Well, it’s a perception. But I’m sure even the most outspoken BlackBerry haters will acknowledge the Bold 9900 (for example) is a nice phone.

The company’s fast move toward seriously adopting HTML5 into the DNA of their new platform (christened “BBX”) is laudable. If there weren’t so many continual media reputation issues, I’m confident the majority would be looking at RIM after last week’s event and expressing significant excitement at the company’s next generation of devices and services. What they showed from a platform viewpoint was hugely exciting. The efforts they’re making with improving platform development tools are brilliant. I’ve asked RIM for a video of the all new Rogers Cup tennis app — it’s made entirely in HTML5 (for the PlayBook) and it’s simply stunning to behold. I sat in on some HTML5 developer tutorials and, goodness me, it’s child’s play to write an app that looks beautiful on both the PlayBook and the raft of RIM handsets — with backward compatibility to all recent device generations. When I say child’s play, I mean it. You can knock up a gorgeous app with just a few lines of HTML and a bit of javascript.

This should bring attention. It should get web developers thinking about the BlackBerry platform — especially when they can actually *do* things with HTML5 (like interface with the address book and so on). It’s also going to become more and more easy to point-and-click port your apps to RIM.

But is it all too late? Well, no one’s announced a takeover yet, right?

So no, I don’t think it’s too late.

The next few months are going to be critical for the company though. We’re going to need to start seeing BBX devices (handsets and next gen PlayBooks) and we’re going to need to see more and more app/service developers adopt the platform.

I’m feeling pretty positive.

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

2 replies on “BlackBerry DevCon: RIM’s fighting strong”

“The facts don’t lie. People are still buying BlackBerries. RIM is still
the number one smartphone maker in dozens of countries. I do mean
*dozens*. Like the UK, for example.”

Really? but 2/3 of current BB owners are not going to replace their current phones with another RIM device once out of contract. That’s a meltdown. And where did the UK smartphone numbers come from? RIM? Are they counting by mfr, or OS? or model?

It may have been a lovely conference, but in the real world I just don’t see it…

I’ll be front of line screaming when that comes to pass Mike. The issue is it’s not happening *yet*. They’re still seeing strong numbers *at the moment*.

Ewan MacLeod
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Mobile: +44 7769 658 104

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