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Inside RIM's plan to win back developers

The BlackBerry maker is counting a lot of mobile apps to be created around its forthcoming BB10 devices, but is it too late for a turnaround?
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Here's how Alec Saunders says he knows Research In Motion's strategy for consumer app developers is working: When someone approaches him at a BlackBerry Jam session with something already in the works.

Alec Saunders

Alec Saunders

"I'll have people coming up afterwards saying, 'Here's my code, see what I've done,'" said Saunders, RIM's vice-president of developer relations, who has been traveling around North America and elsewhere and speaking at the 26 so-called BlackBerry Jam developer events that have been held so far this year. "The things that they're doing, they're creating in two to four days. It might not be finished, but the start of something."

Developers react to the BlackBerry Jams

RIM is hoping developers will be starting a lot of app "somethings" over the next year as it gears up to launch its next-generation BlackBerry 10 devices in the first quarter of next year after a long delay. After a string of outages, the poorly-received PlayBook tablet and other missteps, the Waterloo, Canada-based company has seen its market share plummet compared to rivals such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Samsung, leaving many developers to concentrate on platforms with more obvious consumer appeal. However Saunders, who recently wrapped up a BlackBerry Jam near RIM's headquarters as well as one in Vancouver, Canada., says his mission since he joined the company almost exactly a year ago has been to reposition it as the best business partner a developer could have.

"I have people saying, 'Nobody treats us like RIM does,'" he said. "The consistent thing I hear is, 'I had no idea how easy it was to build on BB10.'"

At the most recent BlackBerry Jam, RIM provided developers with alpha devices--including one with a touch screen and another with a full-fledged keyboard--and released tooling to start developing immediately, along with more details on the firm's product roadmap.

The BlackBerry 10 Native SDK includes the Cascades framework (pictured), used to create apps for BlackBerry 10.

"From what we've seen so far, the new platform is impressive," said Wes Worsford, president of Motek Mobile, a company that makes Tweeker and ScreenMuncher, among other apps. He noted the number of the development paths to consider when creating apps for BB10, including native using C/C++ or Cascades and C++, Qt, HTML, Adobe Air and porting Android Apps to the BB10 platform. "This opens the door to a lot of developers regardless of how they prefer to develop."

Communitech, a non-profit organization based near RIM, also makes apps, sometimes in partnership with other local tech companies. Rob Drimmie, Communitech's Apps Factory development manager, couldn't say when he might be working on anything specifically for BB10.

"I'm not exclusively a BlackBerry developer, I never have been and I never will be, though in most cases I do develop for BlackBerry devices first," he said. "One of the things I love about what RIM is doing lately is the way they've embraced open source technologies. I think the way they support tools like PhoneGap, the Ripple Emulator, and so many other important web community projects that explicitly promote cross-platform development is brilliant."

Drimmie added that he has already built several applications using WebWorks, and he walked away from the BlackBerry Jam reassured that the standards and principles of developing WebWorks applications is going to be carried through with BlackBerry 10. "(It means) that the time and effort I've put into learning their tools will be paying off in a big way with BlackBerry 10," he said. "Not only are the applications I've already built very easy to port to BB10, but the efforts they're putting into improving those tools will make future development easier and give me much more access to native functionality."

Moving from the enterprise to a consumer-oriented market

Part of RIM's challenge has been that the BlackBerry first found favour among corporate users and IT departments that found it easy to manage the devices using a BlackBerry Enterprise Server. In a more consumer-oriented world, the competition has increased significantly. Despite criticism about a paucity of apps in its Apps World, Saunders said RIM sees its store as more of a greenfield opportunity for developers.

"The store isn't overcrowded," said Saunders. "The fact is that if you develop on the BlackBerry, as a developer you can actually make money."

blackberry app world

Despite criticism about a paucity of apps in its Apps World, Saunders said RIM sees its store as more of a greenfield opportunity for developers.

At Motek, Worsford said the company averages about 120,000 downloads daily of its freemium and paid apps. "Yesterday for example, we had 117,564 downloads of our apps," he said.

RIM will continue to host developer events throughout the fall, Saunders said, including Jams in Amsterdam and Asia. He admitted that the BlackBerry maker continues to face concerns from developers around its long-term stability, but laughed off suggestions of any impending sale or shutdown.

"I respond to facts. There's a lot of speculation in the media, and the fact is we are going through a platform shift, but it's very deliberate," he said. "People compare us to Nortel going bankrupt, or Apple when it had to go begging on its knees to Microsoft for money, but RIM has $2 billion in cash and no debt."

Besides re-igniting the loyalty of its installed base, part of Saunders' mission will be to attract developers who are new to RIM. Worsford said one area of opportunity might be around BlackBerry's messaging platform BBM, which has a reported 50 million users. Motek is already working on a number of apps for BB10 with a strong focus on BBM integration.

"Each developer needs to make his or her own decision about developing for BB10. RIM is definitely in a period of transition," he said, however, "They are still a significant global player."