Emerging TechnologyMobileHow the Other 20% Live: What Do BlackBerry Users Do for Apps?

How the Other 20% Live: What Do BlackBerry Users Do for Apps?

Seven suggestions for how RIM can gain ground in the app world, or at least halt the slide.

I have a confession to make: I hate typing on glass.

I know I shouldn’t say it, especially so soon after the death of Steve Jobs, but I can’t hide my feelings any longer. Being able to repurpose device real estate for something besides a keyboard is of course an irrefutable advantage, and that’s why every mobile device is moving away from physical keys. A big sheet of glass is better for almost everything: consuming media, web browsing, reading email, playing games. The only thing it’s not better for? Typing. There’s something so satisfying about typing with physical keys. It’s faster, allows you to type without looking down at the device, and is prone to far fewer errors.

My second confession: until recently, my primary mobile device was a BlackBerry. Before you start throwing fruit, know that I had an iPhone, an iPad, and had spent time on Android devices and Windows Phone – but for work, no mobile device matched the BlackBerry’s ability to crank out long emails.

Yet like so many others, I’ve made the switch – in my case, from the BlackBerry Torch to the iPhone. How many others are switching? It’s pretty staggering. Consider that on the popular “Cash for Your Gadgets” site Gazelle, trade-ins of BlackBerries are up 80 percent in the last week alone, pushed by the recent BlackBerry server outage and the release of the iPhone 4S. Yahoo News reports that 30 percent of BlackBerry users in companies with more than 10,000 people are planning to switch mobile platforms in the next year. RIM, the maker of BlackBerry, has seen its stock fall 60 percent in the last year.

Why all the switching? If we can agree that the most important thing for business people is email – and the BlackBerry is better at email – why are people fleeing RIM for the Android and iPhone?

It’s All About the Apps

If you roll back the clock four years and described this situation to a business end-user, let alone an IT manager, it would seem crazy. As we’ve learned from the new Walter Isaacson biography, even the visionary Mr. Jobs tried to keep third-party apps out of the iPhone. When they first appeared, apps seemed like something for kids; business people might play the odd game of BrickBreaker as a diversion, but in general apps had no meaningful purpose in the business world.

Today, apps go way beyond games and diversions. They help us be more efficient and productive. Whether it’s streamlining parts of our life (shopping, banking, making reservations, buying tickets) so we can get back to work, or improving our work life (more on that later), our mobile apps allow us to be more productive in an era where we’re all being counted on to do more.

But third-party apps on the BlackBerry are a disaster. And for a company that still has a whopping 70 million subscribers worldwide, that presents an incredible opportunity. (BlackBerry holds approximately 20 percent of the U.S. smartphone market and 11 percent of the worldwide smartphone market.)

Corporations are very slow to change, and most large organizations are still using BlackBerry. Unlike consumers, business users can’t just decide to switch phones; they have to wait for their organizations to get ready, buy new hardware, etc. Unfortunately, RIM has made the mistake of trying to compete with iPhone and Android on its own turf: fun, cool, quirky apps.

When RIM launched its campaign “Super Apps” last year, with the tag line “Not just apps. Super apps,” my jaw hit the ground at the chutzpah. Introducing Super Apps at Mobile World Congress, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said:

A Super App for BlackBerry smartphones is an app that delivers a compelling user experience by leveraging the unique capabilities of the BlackBerry platform. Super Apps are the kind of apps that people love and use every day because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience.

I find this Super Confusing (not just because, from the sounds of it, Super Apps are just apps that work). Third-party BlackBerry apps aren’t super. They’re awful. RIM’s app store “BlackBerry App World” has neither the curated rigorous standards and enormous selection of the Apple App Store nor the looser restrictions and massive amount of free content of the Android Market.

And while RIM has managed to pick a few apps that are high profile or decent enough to be featured in its campaign, the company’s neglected its core business customer. So, here are some suggestions for how RIM can perhaps gain ground, or at least halt the slide:

  • Focus on the business customer. This can’t be overstated. Business customers are the bread and butter for the BlackBerry market. Give corporate users what they need, from VPN and tethering to improving business travel. Imagine if BlackBerry included an app like FlightTrack Pro and the turn-by-turn navigation of Android for free. It could be packaged as the business traveler’s survival kit.
  • Make the international customer the second target. For better or for worse, overseas markets are behind the pace of the U.S., and for many, the BlackBerry remains a great device. Creating a killer soccer scores app or a travel app featuring European public transportation systems could score big points.
  • More free apps from RIM. RIM is having a tougher and tougher time attracting the developer community; not a lot of people are getting rich off their BlackBerry apps. To get a sense of scale, top paid apps get 20,000-plus reviews in the Android Market, 100,000-plus reviews on the Apple App Store…and 100-plus reviews on BlackBerry App World. If RIM can release more of its own apps that work as well as its email and calendar apps, it’ll find an appreciative customer base.
  • A better operating system. Right now, many apps simply don’t work very well on the BlackBerry. Evernote (one of the world’s most useful apps) just doesn’t do what it is supposed to – sync with the server to refresh data – and doesn’t work at all offline. While it’s hard to know for sure, I’m not blaming the developers, given the sublime iOS apps they’ve made. And if by some chance the apps that work so poorly are the developers’ fault, RIM needs to take a page from Apple’s book with a far more stringent review process.
  • Improve the application memory management. After getting the BlackBerry Torch, I started to convince myself that I actually had a phone that could use apps; I loaded up The Weather Channel, Facebook, Twitter, CNN, Urbanspoon, and all the allegedly “super apps” I could find. Whether or not the apps were running, the phone slowed to a crawl in a couple of days, and I spent all my time looking at the “busy icon” (aka “clock of death”) that signifies the phone is too busy doing other things to help you. I uninstalled most of the apps and everything was back to normal. But I was just a little sad.
  • A better mobile app store. In addition to weak content on App World, the experience of finding and installing apps from the handset is byzantine and unpleasant. Unless you can’t build a better app store app without a better operating system…
  • Focus on the keyboard. The BlackBerry really has one advantage: its physical keyboard. Apps that focus on the keyboard could have great success. RIM could market by letting people on BlackBerries challenge iPhone and Android users for typing speed. The physical keyboard means it’s far safer to make calls and type messages when you are in the car. (I explained to the officer who pulled me over for texting while driving that I was able to watch the road just fine because I could type without looking at my phone. He was unimpressed.) In short, the physical keyboard is BlackBerry’s one card; I suggest it plays it.

Despite all of these challenges, apps on the BlackBerry have gotten better, and I’m sure they’ll continue to improve. But when compared to the fully mature Android and iPhone markets, BlackBerry can’t hope to stand up and the improvements are coming too slowly. It’s going to keep getting tougher to attract developers, and that’s going to make it harder to convert and retain customers. Beyond the apps, the hardware and software issues are considerable. I know the list above is long and challenging, but it beats closing up shop and ending up as another headstone in the technology graveyard. C’mon RIM: keep fighting. Maybe you can figure out a way to bring some of us back.

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