There’s no two ways about it – 2011 was a bad year for BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. With sliding market share and stock price, product delays and outages, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company – Canada’s most important technology firm – took heat from investors, media and customers alike.
RIM is hoping 2012 turns out better. At the Consumer Electronics Show, the company announced the long-awaited update to its PlayBook tablet, which will enable features such as email and calendar to run on the device itself without having to connect to a BlackBerry phone.
The update is coming in February, or 10 months after the PlayBook was first released.
The company is now focusing on getting developers to build software – the all-important apps – for the PlayBook and its upcoming BlackBerry 10 phones, which it has promised for the second half of 2012.
Alec Saunders, vice-president of developer relations, sat down with CBC News at CES to discuss its app strategy for 2012.
CBC News: We can’t really start talking without addressing 2011, which was not a good year for RIM.
Saunders: Without sounding like a Pollyanna, a lot of the time people get the story wrong. 2011 was the year where we added 25 million customers, we continued to be profitable, we don’t have any debt on the books. Let’s not paint the picture that the company is another Nortel, because it just isn’t in that situation, and app developers need to know that. A lot of people look at us and say, "Should I build applications for RIM?" Yeah, you should; there’s 75 million customers you can target. This is not a company that is in a situation where we’re not going to be here next week. We are, we’re going to be here for a very long time.
Q: There have been criticisms that developing apps for RIM is difficult. How much of that is warranted, and how much of it is overblown?
A: Speaking as a former RIM application developer, because that’s what I did in my last life, we have made it somewhat difficult for developers, but we’re addressing those issues.
Q: Was it too expensive to develop for RIM, or were the tools hard to use?
A: The thing with developers is if you can make it easy to target a platform, then you’ll get people wanting to jump on board. Fundamentally, developers are creative people. We’re interested in discovering new things and building out new capabilities for customers. One of the problems that hasn’t been previously dealt with on the RIM platform is there have been many, many form factors for the devices, many different phones. So with BlackBerry 10, we’re minimizing that. We’re taking steps that will allow developers to create applications that will run on any of our form factors with little or no modification. It’s a big step forward. It will allow them to focus on the things they do best, which is the creativity that surrounds building applications as opposed to making sure it works on every single platform.
That’s a common problem across the industry. If you look at the Android platform, there’s an awful lot of energy that gets put into ports for Android applications. We talked to one Android developer about six months ago about building onto our platform and he said he had 23 different [modifications] to be on a large enough base in the Android ecosystem. It’s an endemic problem in the industry and we’re working really hard to solve it in BlackBerry 10.
Q: Is there a certain category of apps you’re concentrating on trying to get onto BlackBerry devices?
A: First and foremost, nobody can argue that BlackBerry isn’t the best communications-oriented device today. One of our biggest focuses is getting those communications apps for people who are doers as opposed to viewers onto the platform. We’re doing a very good job of that today. There are really two categories of applications. One of them is the category of applications that [sell] the device. We have an effort underway at getting those sorts of applications onto the platform and it [was] being addressed by a business development team in Waterloo [yesterday].
There’s another team that’s focused on getting a market onto the platform. There are tens of thousands of applications that are unique in the market today and we’re focused on getting them onto the platform as well. So one is an outreach program that’s targeted at lots and lots of developers, and the other is a very focused business development sales-oriented effort to get those key applications.
Q: RIM announced PlayBook 2.0 software here at CES, so the device is finally getting features like native email and calendar. Should the device have been released without such apps?
A: That was ancient history, I wasn’t part of the company back then. [Laughs]
Q: But was it bad a idea to release it without those apps? Did it hurt the BlackBerry brand?
A: I think that when people buy a new platform, what they’re looking for is to get applications on that platform. Today more than ever, these are small computers and a great deal of their value derives from the applications that are on them. So when we go to market with any device, if you look at how classic platform launches occur, you try to line up developers so that they have their applications available at launch with the device. Developers want to do that, by the way, because they look at the amount of money the company is spending on launching a device and say, "Hey, if we can draft in behind that, we’ll do better." Years of experience have shown that if you can get an application into the market at launch, then you’ll do better, so that’s what our focus is. When those BlackBerry 10 devices launch, we’re going to have a wave of applications drafting in right behind it.
Q: The February update won’t bring BlackBerry Messenger to the PlayBook. What’s the hold-up?
A: Building software takes time. [Laughs]
Q: We had some questions from readers via Twitter. Here’s one: Are you planning on releasing new devices between now and BB10 later in 2012?
A: I don’t think I can answer that one, as it’s outside the scope of what I do.
Q: Does RIM have any plans to take BBM to other platforms?
A: Again, I’m not the BBM guy.
Q: When are you getting the Netflix app?
A: When we talk with developers, we actually have to work within their business plans, which is unsurprising. In the case of Netflix, they’re doing very well focusing on PCs and those sorts of things, so we’ll get to it when Netflix and RIM are both ready to do it.
Q: Has RIM considered developing devices running Android with a preinstalled bundle of secure RIM apps?
A: Actually, I think the opposite is true. We have this great Android Player technology in PlayBook 2.0 and that will be on BB10 devices. The issue with Android devices is that it’s wide open. None of our enterprise customers will take an Android application because of the potential for malware and piracy problems that really hurt developers. So what we’ve done is built the Player technology and an Android developer can submit their application to App World, our marketplace, and it will go through the same rigorous testing and approval process that we have on App World. Then an enterprise customer can be confident that it doesn’t contain malware and a developer can be confident that somebody isn’t ripping off their stuff and submitting it to another marketplace and selling it under their own name. Piracy is a huge problem on Android and we’ve never done that to our developers. We can give them a marketplace that’s secure and lets them sell their products to our customer base.
Q: When will QNX, the software that the PlayBook runs on, go fully open source?
A: You’re going to have to ask the QNX guys that one, but QNX is already built on open standards. To make it go free and open source, well, goodbye to the business, right?