Research in Motion’s road show comes to Toronto aiming to reclaim the handset maker's market share and rekindle the enthusiasm the company has lost over the past two years
The Harbour Castle Hotel’s conference hall was filled with stone-faced app developers drinking in a music video called The Waiting Is the Hardest Part. The video featured Alec Saunders, vice-president of developer relations at Research In Motion, on vocals, and Martyn Mallick, RIM’s vice president of global alliances and business development, playing keyboard in the band.
“These guys,” said an organizer at RIM’s BlackBerry 10 Jam, referring to the geeks in the audience, “just eat this stuff up.”
Well, never mind that the video was a joke. The kind of latter-day Milli Vanilli lip-synching gag was meant to suggest that Research in Motion, the embattled BlackBerry maker, was coming back as a rock star of the tablet and cellphone wars. It’s just the kind of gag that programmers love, even if they can’t rouse themselves to show much reaction. Geeks are the hardest audience to work outside a room full of retired proctologists.
But they did manage to applaud several times as RIM evangelists demonstrated some of the features that will be found in the next generation of BlackBerry products running on the often-delayed but much anticipated BB10, the company’s next-generation operating system, based on QNX, made by a Canadian company purchased by Research in Motion in 2010.
In that sense, the conference, part of a world tour of some 26 cities, was a success: It wanted to make the developer community excited about the next BlackBerry cellphones when they will be released later this year. As it stands, there are about 80,000 apps available for the BlackBerry cellphone and for the BlackBerry PlayBook, the company’s tablet computer that runs on an early form of QNX.
And one major feature the company hopes to interest the developers is a concept RIM calls “open platform,” which Martyn Mallick described as BlackBerry’s “sweet spot.” He explained the open platform will allow developers working with a variety of tools to create applications using languages and kits such as C and C++, HTML 5, Adobe Action Script, and Java Android.
The strategy is working, Mallick reports, saying that over the past year BlackBerry vendors grew by 254 per cent, the number of apps submitted for RIM’s vetting process rose by 226 per cent, and apps for the PlayBook rose 240 per cent. The figures are important to RIM, which over the past two years has lost a lot of market share to Apple’s iPhone and the many various flavours of hardware that run Google’s Android operating system. Much of the way people judge winners and losers in the cellphone wars is based on the number of apps available. Apple’s App Store, at last count, offered some 650,000 applications, while Google Android apps are closing the gap with some 466,000 released.
Mallick did acknowledge that RIM had erred in its strategy toward the developers’ community. RIM “gave too little time for developers to create apps,” he told the crowd, and that RIM “threw out that model” for the next generation of cellphones and tablets. He also said that the company has sent 20,000 PlayBooks loaded with its Dev Alpha development kit to the programming community “months and months and months before hardware launch” to give them the time to rekindle their desire to work with the company.
Mallick doesn’t think that the Android operating system will remain a big hit with developers. “Android has uncountable device configurations,” he told Digital Journal, referring to all the tweaks given to the operating system by different handset manufacturers, “so it’s a higher investment to develop apps for that platform.”
In terms of direction, Gary Klassen, RIM’s principal architect, suggested the developers think in terms of BlackBerry’s success areas: Productivity. He said that 91 per cent of BlackBerry owners use organizational tools every day and that 26 per cent of owners are “hyperconnected,” communicating at least 50 people a day; some people use their BlackBerries four to five hours a day and 34 per cent are “actively looking for more ways to connect.”
He added that RIM’s new products will focus on a more cinematic experience (a high-resolution screen with greater density with an “excruciating level of detail”), raising the multitasking features to the level of “second nature,” better content, a more fluid work flow and something he calls “moments of charm.”
One feature he demonstrated to a round of spontaneous applause is a predictive on-screen keyboard that “learns” an owner’s most frequently used words, and when the keyboard suggests the right word, the user will have only to swipe the screen vertically to accept it.
It is anybody’s guess as to whether this renewed sense of enthusiasm will translate into a turnaround for RIM, which many online pundits have written off as dead in the water. But with a change of management in place (new CEO Thorsten Heins replacing Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, the company clearly hopes to regain its earlier glossy reputation. This despite reports yesterday that RIM is pursuing an unspecified number of job cuts from its global workforce of about 16,500, which analysts think will not be the last; more severe cuts are to come.
Martyn Mallick, however, dismisses the dire online predictions for the company’s future, saying that in media, “carnage sells.” But, he was quick to add, “media like comeback stories even more.”