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Has RIM's BlackBerry app strategy failed?

Although BlackBerry is the most widely used smartphone system in the United States, with 43 percent of the market, its application strategy seems to have failed.

Research in Motion's BlackBerry App World is significantly less crowded than Apple?s App Store. As of the beginning of this year, there were around 150,000 applications in iTunes, whereas BlackBerry App World had between 10,000 and 15,000 applications and Android was slightly higher, but in the same ballpark. There is not too much going on in terms of branded BlackBerry applications and it is rather ironic considering its marketshare.

?BlackBerry?s app strategy hasn?t failed, but it is certainly struggling in light of the competitors who get more attention because of the higher volume of available apps and downloads,? said Neil Strother, practice director at ABI Research, Oyster Bay, NY.

?So BlackBerry?s App World is perceived as a laggard, and brands don?t want to waste effort on a smaller player at this point, especially when the return on apps can be uneven,? he said.

This chart is a breakdown of smartphone marketshare by handset type (comScore, March 2010).

Because of the lack of buzz around BlackBerry applications, there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm around advertising within BlackBerry applications.

Part of the reason may be the fact that there is so much advertising around the iPhone and its applications. The same holds true for Android. But when was the last time you saw a BlackBerry commercial?

O Canada
Some think BlackBerry dropped the ball when it comes to an application strategy. Others do not.

?This is an inaccurate view of the world,? said Gary Schwartz, president of Impact Mobile, Toronto. ?In mobile, like any fast-moving sport, you need to look to where the ball is going to be, not where it is.

?The fact is that BlackBerry is the No. 1 smartphone in North America,? he said. ?It is leading the charge over the iPhone in the Middle East, UK and many parts of Asia."

Verizon Wireless will launch V Cast on BlackBerry and Mr. Schwartz expects that RIM?s distribution channels will expand significantly.

Historically, BlackBerry has been perceived as not being developer-friendly. Moreover, Apple and Android have cleaner, easier SDKs for developers to leverage.

?Any basement vanity press can produce a smart application,? Mr. Schwartz said. ?This is about to change with new releases from RIM later this year.?

In terms of advertising on BlackBerry, there are some rich-media capabilities, albeit they are not as sexy as those for Android and iPhone.

Advertisers on BlackBerry are usually brands that are trying to reach businessmen.

For example, when Millennial Media launched its BlackBerry rich-media ad units in November, Marriott International?s upper-moderate SpringHill Suites brand was the first to leverage them.

So why aren?t brands more aggressive when it comes to their BlackBerry application and in-app advertising strategies?

According to Brady Murphy, managing partner at Vortex Mobile, the BlackBerry storefront lags for a couple of reasons, mostly the navigation and the user experience.

Improve user experience
The iPhone/Android platform has superior touch functionality and navigation from App Store to application over most BlackBerry devices.

?The Storm doesn?t hold a candle to the Pre, iPhone and Android phones, in my opinion,? Mr. Murphy said. ?The App Store also had a massive head start over BlackBerry App World in that iTunes had an immensely popular music distribution system with hundreds of millions of users already familiar with the software, with a superior UX over other storefronts.

?Additionally, all iPhones and Androids are preloaded with their app stores, while a BlackBerry user must download App World if they wish to use it,? he said.

Mr. Murphy also said that BlackBerry has a great opportunity to win over the enterprise and B2B market, as companies are far more likely to incorporate companywide BlackBerry solutions over the iPhone, which constitutes a significant barrier to entry for the iPhone.

The challenge is to develop productivity, ERP and workforce mobile solutions to answer critical business needs and keep BlackBerry?s business presence.

As an example, consider what Vortex Connect and the largest provider of IT solutions for workforce Kronos is doing for the healthcare industry.

Outpatient visits, time and attendance, punch in and punch out virtual time cards, vacation and schedule change requests, nurse billing compliance all being facilitated through a nurse or doctor's BlackBerry, thereby enhancing patient care and productivity.

?If BlackBerry continues to focus on its business presence and enterprise solutions with B2B-centric partners, it will hold onto its marketshare and continue to develop its UX and navigation on App World and its upcoming handsets,? Mr. Murphy said.

Apps race
But will BlackBerry AppWorld ever measure up to the iPhone? Chances are it probably never will, or it may take time catching up. The iPhone has a huge installed base of 75 million iPhone and iPod devices and counting, all feeding on billions of downloads of 150,000-plus applications.

Consumers are now downloading more than 300 million iPhone applications per month. Also, the iPhone App Store owes its success to its marketing support: existing infrastructure of application review sites, blogs and YouTube review sites.

RIM needs to get more developers and brands interested in creating fun and entertaining applications for its platform.

Although BlackBerry is big among business users, it still has not been able to capture the consumer?s imagination.

?As I was preparing my comments for this article, I decided to review the latest happenings in the BlackBerry AppWorld, when I noticed and realized that I had accidentally deleted the store from my BlackBerry earlier this week,? said Brennan Hayden, vice president at WDA, East Lansing, MI. ?So let me just start there: how and why is this even possible?

?I speculate that a product manager somewhere within RIM thought, when that ?feature? was being decided, that I would be perfectly happy with my RIM as a long as my email and browser were working flawlessly,? he said. ?And he would have been correct.

?I am sitting here looking at my BlackBerry and iPhone side-by-side right now, reflecting on why I am traveling with both these days, care-and-feeding both. They are both amazing products, created by amazing product organizations.?

Reasons for App Store success
Mr. Hayden said that the App Store?s relative success boils down to three things:

First, with the iPhone, it is simply easier and more satisfying to explore and experiment as a user.

Even more key, as a publisher, it is also easier on the iPhone to explore and experiment with your user base, to find your audience. Reviews, catalog presentation, and marketing options are all executed with more of an attention to detail with the iPhone than with BlackBerry.

Second, the BlackBerry suffers from device and OS fragmentation where the iPhone does not. The result is that, from a publisher?s perspective, actually loading an application into the store is dramatically more difficult for BlackBerry than for iPhone.

More to the point, there is no easy way to directly address the ?BlackBerry Market? in one breath. Each device and OS and carrier silo must be separately administered.

The iPhone, for now, does not suffer from that problem. The result is fewer publishers making the attempt, and fewer applications from each publisher.

Finally, the BlackBerry is primarily a business tool. Even for consumer use, it is used in an ?all-business? frame of mind. The result is that making BlackBerry a platform for experimentation, user engagement, social networking and affordable fun, is a challenge.

This ?all-business? usage mode therefore suppresses the level of engagement with the device during down-time, reducing the demand for applications.

?So, to answer the question, ?Has the Blackberry application strategy failed?,? I think the question has to be extended to ?failed who??? Mr. Hayden said. ?So far, it has certainly failed the publisher community, relative to earlier hopes. I don?t think you can say it has failed the user community.

?Several thousand applications is a lot of applications,? he said. ?I have some very good ones myself. I don?t know if it has failed RIM themselves."

Build developer support
However, Mr. Hayden does feel that some people are no doubt disappointed.

BlackBerry needs to expand its marketing options in order to get the publisher community behind it.

Mr. Hayden believes BlackBerry will do so.

?What do they have to lose?? he said. ?Years ago, Nextel fought tooth and nail making their devices ?fun,? thinking the all-business approach was a differentiator.

?I doubt anyone in retrospect from Nextel would call that the best decision.?

Nextel users found ways on their own to make the devices fun. MSN hosted a huge underground Nextel WAP gaming community with early pioneering publishers like Cosmic Infinity.

Eventually, Nextel relented and started enabling fun. Further, Nextel started capturing a substantial youth market based purely on the social networking utility of push-to-talk alone.

?I think RIM could look at that history as a case study to inform its own product decisions today,? Mr. Hayden said.