RIM's steady decline from market leader a mere five years ago can be attributed to a number of reasons, ranging from product delays to growing competition from Google and Apple. This further resulted in a drop in stock market shares, drastic changes in upper management and job cuts. With rumours of possible tie-ups and buy-outs abounding, the once-king of phone makers is not in an enviable position. The only ray of hope seems to be the highly awaited BlackBerry 10 (BB10) platform which was announced last year. Despite all odds, RIM refuses to give up and is all focused on the BB10 platform. To get a better perspective of how RIM is readying the platform for India, we spoke with Annie Mathew, Head of Alliances, India, who says that the new BB10 platform is something to lookout for. She talks about the new BB10-enabled apps, new tie-ups, BB10 developers, app platform monetization and why RIM will not consider making a separate Android lineup of devices. Read excerpts from the interview below:
When can we expect the release of BB10?
Early next year is what we have said, but we have not fixed the date yet. Developers will be putting up their apps for BlackBerry10 by November, from my prospective; or latest by December, all developers will have their apps ready.
In terms of apps, what is new with the BB10? At the launch of BB 10, how many apps can we expect?
We are clearly not doing any number games. Our strategy has been to focus on the experiential level of applications such as what the user experiences with the app, how well it is integrated into our calendar, and the native apps of calendar, email, BBM – all this drives the slickness in an application. It is an old numbers game of downloads. But today when we talk about it, it's how many times the user is coming back to the app, how many times he is engaging in the app, pulling information and pushing back information.
Continuing with BB10, we conducted BlackBerry Jam in Bangalore and Delhi last month. We started off saying there were only 200 seats but had to push it to 400. That’s the kind of response we saw from the developer community. A good 50 percent of developers in Bangalore were Android developers who are now looking at Blackberry and BB10 platform. As now, even Android apps for Android 3.0.5 and above can be ported to BB10 and Playbook OSes. They clearly see an opportunity for them as Android is not a monetizing platform.
Third part survey can give you references on app and monetization. A recent report states that BlackBerry App World is second most profitable for vendors, and BlackBerry revenue potential is 60 percent higher than on Android. Now, those are just reports but what’s palpable are the developers seen at the Jam, talking to each other and all the tweets and the whole ecosystem bubbling with the point that Blackberry is a highly monetizing platform they see. So, whatever skills set they have, they can get it on to the BlackBerry platform with their apps out there. There were all kinds of developers – HTML 5, QT, Adobe, C, C++, Java, and Android. Gone are the days when an OEM would say this is how you can develop an app on the platform. To the current day when they are saying that developers know their technology well and whatever technology it is, it can be ported on BlackBerry10. Our focus is more on the consumer side such as the user experience and how it’s weaving into their lifestyle, to check if users are getting what they need, are developers using push APIs to make battery and bandwidth efficiency high, integration of BBM and more.
Another data point is that 1000 BBM integrated apps came last year and there were 25+ million downloads as BBM takes it viral. This is what we plan to help developers with, and do doubly more in BB10. For example, if you have an app for newspaper or publication or magazine, and if you want to see the full screen then it will minimize everything else offer a real full view. In case of applications that are lying in the background consuming your bandwidth and battery without doing anything will be made to sleep. Thus, we plan to make the platform more efficient for the user.
Tell us about the tie-ups. We have heard about IMS for learning. Are there any other tie-ups on the business or health front? What about tie-ups for BB10?
Take a look at the App World, and you will notice a lot of brand presence there. For instance, we have the Meru Cab app, which is a simple HTML app but immensely useful. Then there are apps for PVR cinemas, Naukri, Shaadi, Bharat Matrimony, India property and many more.
In our healthcare [range], there will some interesting tie-ups but I can’t disclose or take any names right now. There are these large pharmacy companies who see a clear opportunity at engaging with users. For them its not just an app that somebody will download as they are not interested in that. But they need the app to raise awareness of certain diseases and then help with wellness of consumers. Especially in health and wellness, there are many brands coming into play whether it is hospitals, pharma companies or health foundations. For example, Cancer Foundation plans an app around cancer awareness while hospitals look into deeper usage. Narayana Nethralaya have this app for diagnosis and cure right through rural areas. So, you will se a lot of health apps related to pharma companies, hospitals and health foundations.
For BB10, there ware many tie-ups, though it’s a little early to disclose them. The tie-ups range from music, videos, healthcare, to publication houses, TV channels and more. However, the point to be noted is that while the apps launch for BlackBerry 10, the apps are targeting the in-market base that we have like the BlackBerry 7.0, 6.0 and 5.0.
Will Blackberry 10 apps support older devices?
The distinction here is that if you develop an app on HTML 5, it will run on 6.0, 7.0, Playbook and BlackBerry10. This is a huge thing for developers as now you have to invest once into coding and adjust the UI and other tech elements. It will be a great return on investment. However, some of them say, for example, Java doesn’t work on BB10 but a lot of people are looking at HTML 5 to take it across multiple devices.
We completely support HTML 5 as it is getting our platform future-ready. Moreover, a lot of development is happening on it, like it is getting sharper and neater along with new features.
What about BBM-integrated apps for future?
BBM is the core service for us. BB10 apps will also see a lot of BBM integration but you will also see more innovation in BBM integration. The first level of integration was sharing through BBM. We have seen sharing bits and pieces through BBM, for example, if one likes a particular article he/ she can share it with the BBM group. Then, there’s BBM status for a more social feel, and then came BBM music, which takes sharing to a whole new level. We are now looking for group deals for BBM users – Brands and developers together working towards innovating BBM.
Would it be good idea to consider making Android smartphones? May be a separate product line-up?
Not a good idea. The reason is the amount of vulnerabilities that the platform has and our strength is the trust and confidence we give on our platform and, we will always protect that. So, fundamentally that’s a huge difference, and hence not a good idea. The vulnerability is accelerating now, and in a short while you will see that customers are concerned about it. While what the current Android porting helps, it involves all checks and balances to the kind of integrations so that those vulnerabilities don’t creep in. So, essentially you can port but won’t do any native integration.
What is the status of BB10/ QNX?
At the BlackBerry Jam, we gave out Alpha devices to developers. In India, at least 400 alpha devices are out in the hands of developers. Many developers have ported apps, created apps and shown us. In a short time, you will see BB10 beta devices for them to do the next level of testing and so on. Now, this is a huge step for us as we have never put an alpha device in the hands of the developer. Over 10,000 such devices have been created for developers. Now, these are testing devices and can only run BB10 app. There is a huge investment that we have made in developer community, and some of our development plans into developer community run close to about 100 million dollars. Developers have loved the alpha device, and now pushing the app development further to explore the platform to the fullest.
Are there plans for more PlayBooks, running BB10 maybe?
In future, it will be open for all our products. We will launch many BB10 devices, but we can’t disclose anything as yet.
Will older devices get BB10 upgrade?
No, there won’t be any upgrades for older devices. The BB10 platform is a future-ready plan and will require new hardware. So, it won’t be made available for older devices.
Blackberry 10 was announced last year; it should have come out with Google ICS and Apple iOS 5. But Google now has Jelly Bean, and Apple iOS 6. Do you think the delay in BB10 will affect RIM’s condition further?
You should have been at the BlackBerry Jam last month to get the answer to that. Developers aren’t concerned about it. One angle to this is developers can create the app, launch it on BlackBerry 5.0,6.0 and Playbook. Now they aren’t waiting with the app and directly launching it while BB10 is in the roapmap. So, by the time BB10 comes, the app already has got the base market, feedback and can spruce up the app for BB10 platform. Another angle to this is porting Android app for QT, or say, bringing C++ app to BB10, which developers were looking at as a non-performing asset. As they have already invested in the app, this gives them an opportunity to monetize it.
Research agencies predict BlackBerry to be behind Android, iOS and Windows Phone by 2015. What is RIM's prediction of the mobile OS market? What market share do you predict?
They have not seen our BB10 device yet, so the research doesn’t count at least from that perspective. We don’t predict anything and have been focused on what the customer needs and the experience they get. (A RIM spokesperson adds, “There is a lot of commentary that goes around but we are focused on understanding the enterprise and youth community”.) It is a future mobile computing platform and not just an OS of a phone. RIM has some remarkable features like Mobile Voice System, BlackBerry Fusion and more.