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RIM’s BlackBerry Jam woos developers

Most days, smartphones are about features, touchscreens and battery life. At an event sponsored by Research In Motion on Thursday, it was all about the developers who build the apps.

The beleaguered BlackBerry maker needs more of both. As it prepares to launch new devices based on the BlackBerry 10 operating system early next year, it's reaching out to developers around the world to get them to build apps. Its BlackBerry 10 Jam World Tour stopped in Kitchener, Ont. on Thursday, the 24th stop in a series that's included New York, Paris, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Toronto and Montreal, and the first in RIM's backyard.

No devs, no apps, no future

Developers are key to RIM's transition plans, as many of them have shifted to Apple's iOS and Google's Android amid the BlackBerry's fall from grace. RIM has lost 95 per cent of its share value and, according to research firm Gartner, saw its global market share drop to 1.9 per cent last quarter. At RIM's peak, nearly one in two smartphones sold was a BlackBerry.

RIM's managing director of Canadian operations Andrew McLeod says developers haven't always been as central to the company as they are now.

"Historically we weren't as embraced by the developer community. We've changed that," he said. "We're trying to embark on a dialog, and we want to create a discussion. I think historically that wasn't something RIM was receptive towards."

Alec Saunders, RIM's VP of developer relations and ecosystems development, says the tide is beginning to turn, as the number of BlackBerry developers has increased 137 per cent in the last 12 months. The number of apps being submitted to the online store is up 226 per cent over the same period. RIM estimates between 43,000 and 44,000 programmers are now building apps for its smartphones and tablets, and is aiming for 50,000 by Q1 2013.

Saunders told attendees that building a stronger developer community is critical to RIM's success. Yankee Group data shows the BlackBerry App World now serves up more paid downloads per month than the Google Play online store. Vision Mobile estimates the average BlackBerry app costs half as much to develop and generates 40 per cent more revenue than an Android title.

"We want to be known as the company that you want to do business with if you're in the business of building mobile apps," he said. "We want to be the developer's partner. We don't just want to provide the platform."

Changes well received

Ritesh Patel, founder of mobile payments specialist Taab, said the new hardware, software and tools are already making it easier for them to bring new capabilities to market. He said RIM's new developer tools and higher performance hardware have been key to his company's recent history.

"It's just a developer's dream to develop for BlackBerry 10," he told the crowd.

Mark Burns echoes the sentiment. The lead BlackBerry developer for Waterloo-based mobile app developer Enflick says while Apple's iOS is their top platform, BlackBerry has always been a solid second — and a solid business case.

"Even though Android has taken over a lot of the market, it seems like when BlackBerry users find good apps, they'll use them and they'll pay for them," he said. "So we believe in the platform."

Burns says the new developer tools are a significant improvement over the old ones.

"I won't sugarcoat it: The old tools were terrible," he said. "The new tools look great, and allow you to develop user interface elements very quickly. RIM's made a lot of good decisions."

Part of a full-court press

McLeod says feedback like this, combined with positive reviews from the technology press, comes as much-needed good news as the company continues a downsizing and restructuring program that will shed approximately 5,000 employees and $1 billion in costs by the end of the current fiscal year.

"It's like a shot in the arm," he said. "That's important for me, as it validates that we're on the right track, and we're onto something with this future platform."

The event included live demos of the new devices, and developers were sent home with pre-production smartphones known as Dev Alpha. RIM plans to distribute 12,000 of these devices before launch, and says 90 per cent of developers who have already received them are using them to develop code for the new platform.

RIM's developer relations efforts coincide with CEO Thorsten Heins recent meetings with carriers, also designed to build support and lay the groundwork for next year's launch. McLeod called carrier response "tremendous. They were visibly positive and enthusiastic."

He said despite RIM's current challenges, the company remains motivated and focused.

"Sure there are tough days. I'd be less than candid if I said there were days when people didn't feel the stress," he said. "But we're in fight mode. We're in it to win it, and we're excited."

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. carmilevy@yahoo.ca

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