BlackBerry Jam Europe: Alec Saunders and his team are rocking

Sitting today in the keynote at BlackBerry Jam Europe, I could see how BlackBerry was able to attract the largest app catalogue at launch ever, for any computing platform.

The answer is loyalty and inclusivity, prompted and enhanced by BlackBerry’s now legendary developer relations team. I could feel the respect, care and attention for the audience in the room. If anything it’s rather difficult to parse as a standard participant. We’re so used to being lectured and instructed by other platforms that when Alec Saunders and his team come along with their warm smiles and can-do attitude, it’s rather astonishing.

For the assembled BlackBerry developers in the room, it’s brilliant.

Over the past (difficult) years, Alec Saunders has resolutely got up on stage in each continent and effectively made a promise. He asked developers to believe in BlackBerry (and, therefore, believe in him). So it was no surprise to many that the message was rammed home today: We made it, we delivered.

Alec and his team worked incredibly hard last year supplying developer devices to legions of developers to help test and refine their Blackberry 10 apps ahead of launch. It was left to Alec’s team to console, cajole and support the disappointed faithful when the rumoured BB10 launch date was pushed back from Q3 2012 to January 30th. Throughout that time they held portatons, they held event-after-event in 40+ cities around the globe, taking the BB10 message far and wide.

I remember discussions with some analysts back at various events in the summertime wondering why they were bothering. The conventional wisdom is that you do an “Apple” — build it and they will come. As countless (hapless?) platforms before have proved, that’s a rare exception. You need to work at it.

And that’s what BlackBerry has done. It’s paid off. This is why BlackBerry World went live with a 70,000-strong app catalogue. And it’s why 1,000 new apps are hitting the store daily. Detractors will point out that the majority are direct ports from Android. Sure. I think, if I recall correctly, Alec highlighted that their two crazy-popular 36-hour portathon weekends delivered 16,000 about 36,000 applications into the catalogue. That’s astounding. And it means as a consumer, you’ll at least have a degree of parity when compared to other platforms.

There’s work to be done though. This morning, Alec spent a lot of time highlighting the “Built for BlackBerry” opportunity. They’re aiming to favour submissions purpose-built for the platform shortly — those apps will soon be highlighted and promoted on the most valuable carousel real estate on BlackBerry World. Purpose-built applications leverage the full set of capabilities of BlackBerry, not least the fully integrated approach across the device from sharing to notifications.

In this morning’s keynote, Saunders thanked the 12,000+ developers who stuck with the platform and resolutely worked on developing their apps for BlackBerry. If you recall, the company offered any developer who submitted an app prior to the launch of BB10 a brand new BlackBerry device. This was a smart move — not only did it help populate the app catalogue with a set of useful apps, it did so at a fairly low cost. Just a handset, right? Well, Saunders surprised everyone today (to audible gasps of excitement) when he announced that those developers will be receiving a very special customised BlackBerry Z10 — in bright red, each uniquely numbered. I think that’s a smart move and a nice reward. The devices are exclusive — you won’t be able to get them anywhere else.

“You are the ones who earned them,” said Saunders, holding his red Z10 aloft, “You took the leap with us, you contributed in a real way to our shared success.”

If you read that text — indeed, if you read the transcript of Saunders’ keynote, you’d be forgiven for thinking some of his language might sound a little bit… twee. A bit.. fake. It’s not, though — and this is the cruicial thing.

In today’s world, with such cut-throat super-charged competition with a huge lead, you need a radically different method. BlackBerry’s approach is direct, friendly, highly-committed and very, very inclusive. I spent the morning today observing the warmth generated and engedered by BlackBerry toward it’s developers. It’s being felt and recriprocated by a growing number of deevlopers. This is the way ahead for the company.

I’ll write more on this later but just to expand this theme to the larger customer base. I think it’s easy to forget that BlackBerry users have a history of being exceptionally loyal. These last few years will have tested many. I have not been surprised to find many previously hyper-loyal converts swapping to iPhone, Android or Windows recently, especially when it came to contract renewal stage. Who’s going to choose a 12-month old BlackBerry Bold 9900 over a Galaxy SIII or iPhone 5, particularly when there’s the commitment of a 24-month contract to be considered? There’s a school of thought that seems to assume once you step off the BlackBerry platform, that’s it. That it’s game-over for BlackBerry, that you’ll never be back. I don’t know about that. I wonder how many will take a look at the Z10 or the Q10 and make the leap once more back to BlackBerry? You only need to spend 5 minutes with the on-screen keyboard and the new Flow user interface and you can find your mind wandering. Especially when you swap back to your iPhone and wonder why you can’t just swipe-up to activate the device. Or pull right to peak at your messages.

Based on what I saw today at this morning’s keynote, the developers are energised, excited and keen to get stuck in. The challenge for BlackBerry will be to maintain this — and, equally, attract the attention and devotion of their consumers.

By all accounts the company had a blow-out brilliant launch last week in the United Kingdom. One senior executive told me privately that he was, “Absolutely f–king delighted!”. Could this mean a hundred thousand units shipped into channel and then into customers hands in a week? More? It didn’t take long for me to start hearing stories about sell-outs (particularly of the white Z10) — but we’ll need to wait and see.

BlackBerry appears alive and well. I’m off to go and find out more about what they’re doing with the platform.

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