Is the BlackBerry Losing Its Punch?

Breaking development news from iPhone or BlackBerry rarely goes unnoticed. The recent announcement of new developer-friendly tools for the BlackBerry platform at the RIM Developer Conference was no exception, generating interest and debate over what it all means in the battle of the smartphones.

While the move could be considered a branding ploy that may lead to an identity crisis for the BlackBerry, the availability of new development tools may just be the nature of things to come for any smartphone player.

Given that the BlackBerry has been the rock solid enterprise player for the business executive on the go, will the new custom ringtones, visual themes and video games fit the mold? Or will they muddy the waters? Is BlackBerry trying to shift from its all-work, no-play image to become a one-size-fits-all option? Or is it all just part of the development game that defines this constantly evolving market?

New Branding or Business As Usual?

If one looks at the branding side of the picture, the RIM development tool announcement could run the risk of sending a mixed message, Bruce Philp, branding consultant and co-author of The Orange Code, told the E-Commerce Times.

“BlackBerry is sitting between a rock and a hard place,” said Philp. “The marketplace isn’t as simple anymore as the one BlackBerry created years ago, and RIM is forced to make a move. On the surface of it, iPhone did far better than anybody predicted it would, and RIM has to respond — if only on the basis that it would be irresponsible to ignore the popularity it enjoys with the wireless carriers. To the carriers, the iPhone is the ultimate razor, and they sell the blades.”

More subtle is the fact that the iPhone has redefined the smartphone’s role. “iPhone is predicated on erasing specialized tools and the boundary between work and play,” noted Philp. “This thing actually changed behavior, or enabled a more natural behavior, depending on your point of view.”

That said, RIM “can make the products it needs to make,” Philp conceded, “but I have a serious doubt that their brand will allow them to ask people to see them differently.”

Perhaps that’s not the point, suggested Kevin Talbot, co-managing partner of the BlackBerry Partners Fund, who firmly dismissed the notion that these new development tools undermine the device’s power or position in the market.

“To me, it’s an absurd thesis,” Talbot told the E-Commerce Times. “We spend our time investing in the smartphone ecosystem across all platforms. Whether it’s BlackBerry or iPhone, [application development is] what everybody is doing. Everyone has to continually innovate with developer tools, because these devices are quickly approaching the power and performance of what you have on your desk.”

There’s little cause for concern, given RIM’s status in the market, said Greg Sterling, Internet analyst with Opus Research. “RIM is in an interesting position, because it has done very, very well in the market without delivering a great mobile Internet experience or lots of applications.”

Despite the shortcomings, it has an extremely strong brand identity with its installed user base, he told the E-Commerce Times. “However, RIM does know it needs to do a much better job on the mobile Web experience — and it also knows it needs to keep pace at some level with the applications phenomenon.”

Applications for Hire

That doesn’t mean having to offer up 100,000 applications, said Talbot. “There has been a lot of hype about the great applications for iPhone — but it’s not that relevant a number when you consider that people can’t possibly use them all, it’s hard to find all of them, and statistics show that people download them only because they are darn near free and usage falls off the cliff very quickly — usually within 30 days. When something is free, you take it for what it’s worth.”

The key lies in the quality, not quantity. “The strength of the BlackBerry is in enterprise, which offers some advantages [for developers] within certain contexts,” Talbot continued. “But there does need to be some kind of critical mass for applications that are developed, and it is evident that the real potential growth is on the consumer side. Yes, RIM is trying to make it more developer-friendly, because [the developer community] hasn’t been as interested in the platform as the iPhone — or Android, to a lesser degree. But they do have some evangelism to do to get the developers to pay attention.”

Keeping Your Audience on Board

The announcements bode well for RIM, because they address many potential opportunities for application developers to create software and services for BlackBerry devices that weren’t possible before, Jeff Orr, senior analyst for mobile devices for ABI Research, told the E-Commerce Times. “I think the opportunity is one of the better kept secrets. It’s an area where they felt they could really add value.”

The new features do resonate with the intended audience, said Orr, who has worked with the developer community.

“What RIM has done is simplify the processes developers take for releasing applications for the BlackBerry platform,” he explained. “They’re just working to grow outside the mold and widen their audience. Remember, RIM’s developer program is one of the oldest in the industry. Now they have the opportunity to round out the solutions they have to offer to reach a broader audience.”

It’s All Part of the Game

These days, it all comes with the smartphone territory, observed Talbot. “Developers want to build applications on the most appropriate platforms. If they think opportunities are there with the BlackBerry platform, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Given the continued convergence of features and functions, the issue of whether one can play on a BlackBerry or work on an iPhone will become moot, he added.

“We see smartphones evolving to the point where they will become your computer, your wallet and your digital lifestyle device. The total convergence of capabilities is an inevitability — and the developers are excited to see these tools becoming available. They expect RIM to be constantly evolving to give them more tools to do more on increasingly powerful devices,” Talbot said.

“They’re just playing the game,” he concluded. “That is, [they’re] continuing to innovate to give developers tools to build better new stuff. It’s table stakes stuff. It’s what everyone has to do.”

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