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1/25/2013
04:49 PM
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BlackBerry Comeback: RIM Must Win Developer Support

Against odds, BlackBerry 10 is gaining hype and converting skeptics. To compete, though, it needs to attract developers. Does RIM have the app for that?



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The Jan. 30 arrival of BlackBerry 10 is only days away. After looking for months like it would be dead on arrival, RIM's new OS has cultivated growing enthusiasm in recent weeks, leading Gartner analyst Phil Redman to declare in a blog post that 2013 would be the platform's "comeback year."

Whether BlackBerry 10 lives up to the sudden hype remains to be seen, but if it does, there's a good bet that app developers will be leading the charge.

RIM faces steep challenges in launching the new OS. Accounting for just 4.6% of the smartphone field in 2012, the BlackBerry platform has hemorrhaged so much of its once-considerable market share that there's little ground left to cede.

One of the most damning indictments against RIM's future has been a lack of enthusiasm among developers. The bring-your-own-device, or BYOD, phenomenon not only accelerated Android and iOS to global dominance but also realigned the workplace dynamic. Previously, IT had decided what devices were office-worthy; now, the preference of end users carries more weight.

[ Learn more about RIM's latest mobile management platform. Read RIM Launches BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10. ]

User preference demands a compelling experience driven by not only enjoyable hardware but also a rich app economy -- not the traits for which BlackBerry devices are most known. Indeed, an IDC-Appcelerator survey conducted in November found that BlackBerry attracted only one developer for every nine interested in making iPhone apps.

But opinions can change quickly in the tech world -- just ask Apple's investors. RIM has been aggressively courting developers over the last few months, and the effort has, at least in terms of volume, begun to pay off. The company audaciously promised that 70,000 apps will be available when the new phones launch, and with recent hackathons generating upward of 40,000 submissions, RIM might actually achieve its goal. What's more, RIM is offering developers incentives of up to $9,000, albeit under a a fairly specific set of conditions.

A huge catalogue won't appeal to anyone if the apps are all lousy, of course, but RIM has been proactive in this regard as well, touting the ease with which Android products can be ported. If building native BlackBerry 10 apps were to require substantially more work than creating Android offerings, most developers would just stick to the latter. But if Android developers can also sell to RIM customers with only minor marginal effort, there's a greater chance the BlackBerry app store will not only start big but also continue to grow.

The hardware is another component. Great apps can't be enjoyed if the phones and their OS aren't inviting and engaging as well. RIM hasn't released details about the new BlackBerry 10 devices but a steady stream of leaks has set expectations.

One of the upcoming devices should feature a physical QWERTY keyboard and is likely geared to those who enjoy using today's BlackBerry products. The other, which is expected to vaguely resemble an iPhone, is a more dramatic departure from the company's traditional form factors. Many of its rumored features are attractive but not groundbreaking: Near-field communication, an 8-megapixel camera, 1080p video recording, and so on. But others are more impressive, such as a screen with greater pixel density than the iPhone's Retina display.

The spec sheet likely will also include a slew of accelerometers, gyroscopes and other sensors. These inclusions, although not unique to BlackBerry, could sway some developers' choices, given that the next generation of apps likely will use sensors that persistently monitor ambient conditions. BlackBerry 10 is thus ready not only for the current, touch-centric uses but also many of the cutting-edge ideas on the horizon.

As for the software, the interface is reportedly smooth, with a convenient and well-integrated hub that allows users to view emails, texts and social media activity without exiting whatever app is currently open. Other intriguing features include true multitasking capabilities and an onscreen keyboard that learns which words a user commonly misspells and applies adjustments. BlackBerry Balance, which separates work content from personal content, is noteworthy as well.

None of the software specs are paradigm-shifting the way the iOS initially was, so it remains to be seen if a phone that is merely competitive, rather than revolutionary, can attract large numbers of users and developers. But after all the doom and gloom surrounding RIM in 2012, the upcoming devices warrant optimism.

Sencha CEO Michael Mullany believes that BlackBerry 10's browser, which is expected to run HTML exceptionally well, is another developer draw. His company specialized in HTML5 and is a RIM partner, so his contention might not be surprising -- but with HTML5 steadily encroaching on native mobile apps, it's worth considering.

In an interview, he said that mobile phone users are "fickle" and relatively willing to jump from platform to platform. "HTML5 is a huge hedge for application developers," he said, noting that they can take the same set of skills to whatever platform happens to be popular. He claimed BlackBerry10's browser will offer a "superlative" experience that should do justice to the best work developers concoct. "People will be using HTML5 as a development technology to create apps for all except the most graphically rich multimedia apps," he predicted.

IDC research VP John Jackson, who was involved with the IDC-Appcelerator survey, said in an interview that "there's some merit to the argument" that HTML5 could attract more app builders to BlackBerry 10. "The most immediate thing it will do is open the door to a much, much broader population of developers," he said, although he cautioned that it will be "years" before HTML5 overtakes native apps in significance.

As for RIM's broader chances, Jackson noted the company's efforts to engage developers, concluding it has "had some success." Nevertheless, he said BlackBerry's resurgence will be "an extremely difficult maneuver to pull off." Although the OS has garnered positive buzz, it is being launched "into the teeth of the best Apple, Samsung, and Nokia have to offer," he said.

Even so, he offered that RIM could succeed without dramatically increasing its share of the smartphone market -- and the key could be developer support. "If we're going to look at RIM's success or failure in terms of market share, the news is not gonna be good," he said. Instead, a "reasonable barometer for success would be for the market to start thinking about RIM as a computing platform, not measuring it by product unit volumes."

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