Research In Motion, once alone atop the corporate smart phone mountain, must have done some serious soul searching this year. Its market share is now 15% according to Morgan Stanley figures; not really a drop, but others have passed it by (Android 25%, Apple iOS 17%). Many IT shops still hold dearly to RIM's principled and unparalleled approach to security, but they're like weary fighters in a 12th-round clench.
Skeptics say RIM's best days are behind it, but lately it has landed some body shots that position the company for an exciting 2011; this includes aggressively embracing mobile web application development, extending its push messaging architecture to more enterprise applications, building its PlayBook tablet, and, with Thursday's acquisition of user experience wizards The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), accepting blingy consumer trends.
Jim Balsillie, RIM's notoriously quotable co-CEO, made absolutely no apologies in a recent conversation. He seemed unphased, if not combative about what many perceive as RIM's failure to grow, saying that the company's enterprise business is still growing. "There have always been competitors," he said. "We've swapped out a couple old names, swapped in a couple new ones."
But companies are assessing their business systems around mobility, Balsillie said. That means mobilizing everything from unified communications to workflow to collaboration. While he agreed that a consumer effect has driven this, enterprise systems must still be enterprise grade; that is, they "must be reliable, global, scalable, manageable . . . that's the dynamic at play." Naturally he believes RIM is in the best position to solve that paradox.
RIM Must Clarify Its Developer Story
With BlackBerry's Java heritage combined with the forthcoming Playbook's QNX platform, and a host of new WebWorks tools the company announced at its recent developers conference, the development vision has seemed murky. Balsillie is pretty clear, though: it's all about using standard web creation and development tools for mobile applications; and he sees native mobile applications eventually giving way to mobile web applications. "There's no need for native mobile apps," he said. "All you need is the web."
Balsillie also bristled at the app store counting game the media likes to play. "We have ten times more applications than Apple," he told me, "because we support Adobe and those tools." And, he noted, lots of enterprise applications don't show up on an app store.
Now, he said, developers can build Flash or AIR applications, or, with WebWorks they can use standard tools to build web applications that can access underlying BlackBerry services like GPS, Push, multi-tasking and more. They can even publish these applications in the BlackBerry app store.
Many developers argue that when building web-based apps, the performance just isn't there yet, either because mobile networks are congested and slow, or native device functions don't work as well; or that application connectivity needs will jack up end-user data costs. At the most recent Web 2.0 Summit in early November, Balsillie insisted that RIM stood for performance, and pointed at recent tests comparing Playbook and iPad performance; the Playbook sports a multicore processor and a real-time OS. Presumably we'll see this approach seep into other BlackBerry products. (You can watch Balsillie's discussion at Web 2.0 in the video embedded below.)
If RIM is right -- if it can provide superior performance and a mobile web mentality shift happens -- it will be much easier for developers to justify writing more BlackBerry applications. The evangalism must be strong in 2011, but it might take until 2012 for success.