RIM lays out app strategy; still no BlackBerry 10 release date

Speaking at BlackBerry’s DevCon Europe in Amsterdam, new Reasearch in Motion (RIM) CEO Heins used his first major address as CEO to lay out the company’s 2012 strategy. The company is betting everything on Blackberry 10 – its new operating system – but is still refusing to offer any release date.

Blackberry maker RIM has had a rough year, and new CEO Thorsten Heins is under the hammer.

BlackBerry 10 is the company’s new operating system for its smartphones and tablets, based upon its BlackBerry Playbook QNX-based operating system.

It’s BlackBerry 7 devices have been holding the fort well, Heins claims that it is the leading pre-pay handset seller in the UK, Spain and the Netherlands, and the UKs largest smartphone seller full stop.

But these devices are solid but unspectacular in the face of high-spec, highly desirable devices such as the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S2.

Heins said RIM is "focusing on a seamless experience" for its customers, and one which addresses the company’s key failing – app development.

While investors will no doubt be grumbling about the lack of information on next gen hardware, this isn’t so much the problem with RIM – its the product eco-system, as CBR discussed here.

The company is now focusing heavily on getting its App Store up to scratch, he now claims BlackBerry App World is boasts 2 billion downloads, with other 60,000 apps available. It now supports 26 currencies across 164 markets and 6 million daily downloads.

This still isn’t a patch on Apple or Android’s half billion plus apps – but a damn sight better than the 17,000 available last year.

Alec Saunders, RIMs vice president of developer relations and ecosystems development went into the specifics, after a short ‘myth-busting’ session where he claimed that RIMs app store is the most profitable, noting that 13% of app developers make 100,000 or more.

If true, this does suggest the company is attracting commercial level development, rather than bedroom hobbyists, which fits with the company’s enterprise market positioning.

Carrier billing (where apps turn up on your phone bill, rather than having to use a credit card) have also been pushed, but for most customers is not a priority. iTunes, for example, still uses its own payment systems quite happily.

The company is also making sure that all options are available to developers, C, C++, Java, QT and the whole host of Opensource tools are available, alongside its Flash and Adobe Air options.

Saunders was at pains to express how much work the company is doing at being as unobtrusive as possible with the app developers – as you’d expect from a company with its back to the wall. It is also pushing its developer community, BlackBerry Jam, which will be running worldwide seminars, community programs and Jam rewards to help push development. Again, catch up when compared to rivals, but something that BlackBerry is showing some urgency about developing.

Chris Smith, VP of application platforms and tools, rolled out developer after developer to show off innovative uses of BlackBerry Playbook and smartphone applications, including augmented reality apps, and show off the power of the Playbook – including demos of 3D rendering with shaders.

Saunders boasts that four of its top selling apps are games, and coming from much more well known cross-platform developers, such as Ideaworks’ Marmalade SDK (formerly Airplay SDK). Support for Marmalade has already seen top sellers such as Cut the Rope and Backbreaker Football appear on BlackBerry.

British company Mippin also gave a demo of their cross-platform development software. CEO Nick Barnett said that since the change from Java-based development to HTML5 (Blackberry Webworks) has seen their apps take a 1550% pick up.

Referring to the BlackBerry’s bane – conversion of apps from iOS and Android, Barnett said that HTML5 app development has taken "what used to be months of development to minutes."

The key statement was thus: BlackBerry’s Playbook 2.0 software will see the "most comprehensive support for HTML5 of any browser currently available."

A bold claim, but it shows that BlackBerry has its nose pointed in the right direction.

HTML5 is rapidly emerging as the default development platform for mobile devices – it’s platform agnostic and is probably BlackBerry’s only possible solution in the App Store wars which it has already lost.

They may not be getting much in the way of exclusive app development on their platform, but they are atleast ensuring that they don’t miss out on any future classics.

This is key – BlackBerry can’t hope to end its chicken-before-egg uptake problem without boosting its app offerings – customers wont buy a Playbook if there aren’t any apps, and app developers wont develop for Blackberry 10 unless there’s a critical mass of customers.

Smith elaborated on the company’s new ‘super-apps’ strategy, which is to build apps that run across multiple devices seamlessly – i.e. a song can be passed between a Playbook and smartphone – and continue playing. Another example was three friends sharing a song simultaneously on smartphones, which opens a chat window where they can discuss it in real time, anywhere in the world, similar to the company’s already industry leading BlackBerry Messenger Software.

The next problem for RIM to deal with is the Osborne effect – Heins and his team have been very careful to discuss the platform in great detail without any specifics on the phone devices, which could harm sales current BlackBerry 7 devices and the sales of the Playbook One, which will be superceded this year.

The Playbook One is in a strange space; launched in April it flopped and was also released unfinished, not including an email or calendar client.

Version 2.0 of the software which fixes all these problems is due to launch later this month – but what interest is there on the part of the consumer to purchase a device that will be made redundant in a few months time following the PlayBook 2’s launch?

RIM are now desperately trying to get as much of a return on the devices as possible before the next Playbook launches. Having already taken a $485m writedown on their Playbook stock. Playbook are currently on sale (for the third time since November) for just £169 at most retailers until Feb 10. Heins also announced that every attendee at its DevCon conferences would be getting a free Playbook, as would anyone at their Hackathons.

This doesn’t inspire confidence in the hardware for consumers, who may hold off their purchases damaging the company’s cashflow. Similarly, Investors get no firm release dates for the next-gen products, and will continue to drive the company’s stock down in exasperation.

Talk about stuck between a rock and a hard place.

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