Currently, RIM has developed a few “Add-on” applications such as Facebook and Myspace, with others currently in the works. RIM also have a huge internal application vault of unreleased apps they think might be core to the BlackBerry experience, and we may see these launched as well. The question I’d like to address in this editorial is “Should RIM Be Developing First Party Applications?” There are a few things to consider when answering this question such as:
- Essential vs non-essential applications.
- Can RIM do it better?
- The developer ecosystem.
Essential vs non-essential
The argument that RIM should develop applications that are integral to the BlackBerry experience is sound. For example, BlackBerry Messenger is probably best left in the hands of RIM, as the app needs to be continually updated over a life span of many years and should be insulated from the market against the need to monetize.
Non-essential apps such as those that add additional functionality to the BlackBerry, should be arguably be left in the hands of an open market. For example, Twitter have an open API allowing anyone to develop a great Twitter app. It probably doesn’t make sense for RIM to make a Twitter app, as it sends the wrong message to the developer community, and it’s not clear if RIM can do it better. Even if it’s a really good idea, and every BlackBerry should have this functionality, it’s still important that the developer ecosystem be left to create this app and sell it based on market demand.
Currently, we have seen RIM develop the following apps:
BlackBerry App World
Windows Live Messenger
Quick Search with Google
AOL Instant Messenger
U2 Mobile Album
TiVo(R) DVR Scheduler
RIM have also entered streaming media business with the Chalk and the accessory business with their line of official BlackBerry Accessories such as:
The BlackBerry Presenter
BlackBerry Visor Mount
BlackBerry Music Gateway
All of the above decisions affect the market at large, and I would argue for the worst. Lets take a look at whether or not RIM can make quality software, and try and address the issue of whether they should be in this business at all.
Can RIM do it better?
I have a hard time understanding why the Facebook app had to be developed by RIM. I’ve been told it’s because the Facebook app utilizes APIs that are guarded by RIM, and couldn’t be leveraged by third party developers. From a user perspective, whatever these APIs are, they aren’t doing anything we haven’t seen before. All of the contact mining, calendar integration and notification methods have been done in other applications, without the use of these APIs that RIM has determined as crucial to the success of the app. I’ve written before about the fact that Facebook for BlackBerry still needs a lot of work, and comparing it to the iPhone version, I’m unconvinced RIM had to develop this themselves.
A typical example of a bug in the Facebook for BlackBerry app is shown below. It’s these sort of bugs that make you wonder why RIM is even in this business in the first place:
With regards to the other applications created by RIM, across the board they have poor user reviews and are updated very infrequently relative to other applications in App World. For example, I get almost weekly updates from emacberry, about an update for one of their products. How come a multi-billion dollar corporation can’t keep up with a single developer?
The developer ecosystem.
The developer ecosystem at RIM could to be split into consumer and enterprise. The consumer application ecosystem is new for RIM, and with a suite of IM and social networking apps, the company has been very aggressive in building apps which should arguably be made by third parties.
Apps such as UberTwitter, SocialScope, TweetGenius and IM+ by Shape Services, are all at the whim of RIM building their own application and killing the market for these companies. The message they’re sending to developers by building their own social apps is: don’t bother building any social app of value because we’ll just do it ourselves. What’s even worse, is that RIM have gone and labeled their own apps “Super Apps”, which seems to say “look at how great we are at building software, you should try harder to be like us”. A good developer ecosystem would promote just the opposite. RIM is in the business of selling hardware, and at the most, creating an operating system that makes it easy for developers to write compelling and useful software that will make the platform better for the end user. If a Twitter app is essential from a user perspective, I guarantee you that a developer will make an app that meets the market needs, at a price the market is willing to pay for. What is going on right now seems like a battle between communism and capitalism. App World should be a place where Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand destroys those apps which aren’t helping the user, and rewards those that make the end user experience better. Instead, we have a communist system where if anything is successful, RIM decides to do it themselves and uses its control over the system to guarantee its success, regardless of how terrible the product may be.
The BlackBerry Alliance Program is RIM’s answer to rewarding those enterprise-level companies that have been with RIM for a long time and are making significant contributions to the platform. Yet again, they’re giving the wrong message to developers. RIM’s Alliance Program is built on a points and rewards program that is skewed towards large companies that pay large sums of money in conference sponsorships and training in order to get petty rewards such as “co-operative marketing activities“.
In speaking with companies about the Alliance program, the sweeping response was that it was simply a waste of money. There is a lot of resentment about the reward system in that RIM dangle a carrot in front of companies with the promise of inside APIs and access to smartphones for testing, but they’re generally over-promising and under-delivering. It costs a company a lot of money to attend a conference, and asking them to spend money when the entire industry is trying to survive a recession is the worst thing you can do for your platform. RIM should feel lucky that companies want to make software for BlackBerry, and it’s insulting to force them to work so hard for the tools they need to make BlackBerry better for its users.
Totally off the record, companies companies have also expressed concern about RIM entering markets that they have a solid footing in. There is an old strategy that Microsoft was rumored to employ that involved telling a developer that they’re interested in buying the company, and they want to learn more about how the application works so they can best integrate it with the platform. They will then learn everything they can about the software, and make it themselves. While this is probably not the case, it definitely seems as though RIM have done this in building their Twitter app, and the upcoming BlackBerry Shield app. Is it just coincidence that BlackBerry Shield has the exact same functionality as SmrtGuard?
My contacts have also told me that BlackBerry Shield is just one application that is in the RIM app vault that may or may not get released. For almost every major application in enterprise, RIM have a competing product that they can launch if they decide the functionality should be a core component of the BlackBerry platform. Companies know this and some are just waiting until RIM put up the press release saying their entire business is for all intents and purposes dead. Again, something is very wrong with the developer ecosystem if this is the sort of rumor going around. This also applies to accessories. Take for example the BlackBerry Presenter. There are companies, even one in my hometown, whose business is to make these sort of accessories. RIM, a smartphone manufacturer, for some reason decided they could do it better and have killed the market for others. It’s not even that this product is integral to the platform (it isn’t), and is it a major source of revenue for RIM (all in the devices). In the end, the only result seems to be a negative message to accessory manufacturers that RIM thinks they can do it better, and don’t want your support.
In the coming years, we are going to have to see a change in attitudes at RIM. Opening up APIs to developers, and making a developer ecosystem that promotes innovation, rather than kill it, will become increasingly important for RIM. In the end, RIM is a device manufacturer, not a software company. They definitely shouldn’t be an accessory manufacturer. If never touching another line of code means that RIM will sell more devices, than that is exactly what they should do. Either that, or RIM can continue to make sub-par applications and kill the app economy, while Apple will be more than happy to pick up the disgruntled users.
UPDATE: There is something I should mention about RIM as a company that wasn’t adequately addressed in this article. All bloggers know, from the extensive amount of takedown notices, that RIM’s legal department is prevalent through every facet of the company. The idea that RIM would somehow infringe on technology that another company uses, and do something that could be considered in any way illegal, is pretty far fetched. If RIM is ever in the Build vs Buy state of mind, you can be sure that legal have made a perfect seal around the process to avoid any future legal troubles. Now, this hasn’t fully protected them in the past against patent trolls, but every company is susceptible to hungry patent lawyers and sinking companies looking to make a final cash grab. The idea that RIM would steal intellectual property is pretty far fetched considering the heavy investment RIM has made into their legal infrastructure, and the possible revenue loss that could occur in a lawsuit. There is also a gray area when it comes to software. Any idea has been expressed before a thousand times, and almost nothing is new in the software business. If RIM choose to build it themselves, and someone has a pre-existing product, it’s not that RIM has stolen the idea, it’s more that they have used an idea to the ecosystem’s disadvantage. If anything, this editorial is meant to highlight the need to effectively navigate this gray area, and avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, because it’s beneficial for everyone in the long run.