Loosening the reins - Mobile World Live

Loosening the reins

25 OCT 2011

RIM’s recent North American developer conference led to an interesting question: is it important for a company to “own” its developer ecosystem?

BlackBerry is undoubtedly one of the big five platforms currently, alongside iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Symbian OS, each of which offer a significant user base and established developer ecosystems. RIM has done a solid job of building an app store, and with the company trumpeting nearly 5 million app downloads daily, it is doing an effective job in terms of both supply and demand.

But it has now said there will be a hard break between BlackBerry 7 and BBX, with its existing Java-based BlackBerry developers effectively left out in the cold. Its arguments that there are more BlackBerry 7 devices to come, and that customers tend to continue using BlackBerry devices for some time after purchase, hold some water for the short term – but developers still know that they are now working with what will soon become a legacy platform.

RIM is pushing developers looking to offer apps which run on both its current and future devices towards its WebWorks solution, which is based around common web technologies such as HTML5, JavaScript and CSS. It is also continuing down the path of supporting Android apps in BBX, as well as Adobe’s AIR/Flash multimedia technologies.

But for those using the existing Java-based BlackBerry developer environment, there will be no support in future BBX devices. And for those using BBX native tools, there is no support in existing (and immediate future) BlackBerry smartphones – indeed, as yet, RIM has not detailed availability of BBX-powered handsets. Development using BlackBerry-specific tools seems to be the least appealing option on several levels.

There appears to be two schools of thought about this strategy.

The optimistic view is that by supporting multiple cross-platform development paths, RIM is more likely to attract a wider developer base, which will be able to easily port existing products to BlackBerry devices. This will bring it access to a wider pool of talent than it can build on its own, enabling it to offer a broad range of apps to customers.

Indeed, gone are the days when apps were created for a single platform. With the key features demanded by customers now including social networking features, and with the app market being incredibly competitive, the ability to serve the widest possible user base is now crucial to success for developers – making cross-platform tools significantly more appealing.

The pessimistic view is that RIM is taking an existing developer community and turning its back on it, with those who have helped build BlackBerry App World now in no better position than those coming to the platform from outside – arguably, they are worse off, because existing investment and experience in BlackBerry apps will become worthless at some point down the road.

While existing developers may see Java-based BlackBerry apps as viable for the short term, when it comes to future plans the operating system will no longer be an option. For those shifting focus, iOS, Android or Windows Phone are much more appealing alternatives than BBX, because they already have an established customer base – and in Android’s case, the existing Java experience can also be exploited.

Perhaps the more significant change is that RIM  will transition from having a smaller, but “owned” base of developers specifically offering products which target BlackBerry, to instead accessing a larger, but “transient” community of developers targeting BlackBerry users with cross-platform (or even Android) tools.

Parallels can be drawn with Nokia’s decision to adopt Windows Phone as its smartphone platform of choice, effectively ending its relationship with the Symbian OS community – where it was very much in the driving seat – in favour of leveraging the base Microsoft has built for its platform. Except in RIM’s case, the potential gain is bigger, due to the larger potential developer pool it can tap.

According to a recent survey by developer tools company Appcelerator, developer interest in BlackBerry has tailed off over the past year, while HTML5 is generating significantly greater enthusiasm from developers. Even for RIM’s core enterprise market, developer sentiment has shifted to Android and iOS.

So perhaps the decision to cede ownership of a small developer base, in favour of the greater good – even if it means less control – may make some sense.

Steve Costello

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members

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Steve Costello

Steve works across all of Mobile World Live’s channels and played a lead role in the launch and ongoing success of our apps and devices services. He has been a journalist...More

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