Over the last 18 months, I have had the unique opportunity to become entrenched in the mobile ecosystem from the viewpoint of business startups, independent developers and as a consumer. I walk around with a BlackBerry Bold and an iPhone and test smartphone apps in all shapes and sizes.
At the BlackBerry Partners Fund, we’ll invest in mobile businesses agnostic to the device that the application is based on; however, we expect that as a business owner you’ve chosen to target the right devices for the right reasons in the right market verticals. With that in mind, I get the opportunity to see the merits of developing applications for one platform versus another in a variety of contexts and business situations. From my experience, I have learned that generally, developers want to reach as many target users (or screens) as possible with the minimum amount of work, cost and time invested – and this makes a ton of sense!
BlackBerry Partners Fund is often perceived as the corporate venture arm of Research In Motion (“RIM”) – but it is not. RIM is an investor in the Fund and it is co-managed by RBC Venture Partners and JLA Ventures. As an employee of RBC, I don’t have access to internal information at RIM and I operate at an arm’s length from the company. However, as a fellow Canadian, I would love nothing more than to see RIM continue its dominance in the global smartphone market.
For RIM to remain one of the leaders in the marketplace, I strongly believe that a few fundamental changes need to happen at the developer level through to the end-user experience.
Figure 1. Mobile application value chain from developer to end-user.
As I mentioned previously, developers want to find the fastest, cheapest and quickest way (while retaining quality) to develop their applications. Many developers who develop for BlackBerry run into two huge fragmentation issues – the first at the device level and the second at the carrier level. My advice to RIM is to either acquire a company that has figured out how to port between BlackBerry models or develop an in-house multi-device porting tool that can be released as part of the BlackBerry SDK for developers. A tool with these capabilities would be helpful to RIM and to developers; there’s a simple equation: “BlackBerry-wide porting tool = more developers + more applications (net, on more handsets) = more revenues for RIM and developers + happier developers” (Note: No scientific studies exist to prove or disprove this equation). Just to be clear, RIM isn’t the only company with this problem. Device software fragmentation has been a problem for Windows Mobile for years and is now beginning to become an issue for Google Android. Microsoft is now trying to combat this with the Windows Mobile 7 platform by taking a standardized approach with no backward compatibility.
Application stores have become an essential distribution platform for mobile applications since the launch of the Apple App Store and are expected to reach $7 billion in revenue in 2010. One of the core elements to ongoing vitality in the app store ecosystem is the ability to create a seamless customer experience, which includes availability of quality apps and the ability to purchase apps easily and quickly, while on-the-go. RIM has a great start with BlackBerry App World (available via mobile and online), but for RIM to improve upon their current application store, I strongly believe that a number of things need to happen:
(1) A credit card needs to be added to each user’s profile to allow payment beyond PayPal.
(2) BlackBerry App World needs to come pre-loaded on all handsets; in situations where carriers keep “walled-gardens”, there should be rev share deals in place to push down App World and split revenues on pre-agreed terms with RIM rather than fragmenting distribution for developers who have a hard enough time distributing across all handset models.
(3) BlackBerry App World needs to run faster and without as many bugs; it crashes far too often IMHO.
I’d like to further note that easing the end-user’s ability to purchase mobile applications would result in more revenues going back to developers who will in turn create more compelling applications for users (as seen in Figure 1, above). It’s a very nice cycle that would benefit RIM, developers and consumers.
Alternative or Cloud Device Management
I think that Apple maintained such a strong, early and rapid acceleration of mobile application adoption because of their centralized billing platform and iTunes. iTunes was a very smart way of leveraging a desktop application (used frequently) to create a simple management console for the iPhone. I believe that RIM should take on a similar strategy. My recommendation to the company would be to have each BlackBerry user create a profile online, hosted in the “cloud”, and accessible through a variety of interfaces. As a primary interface, I would suggest that RIM creates a plug-in that hooks into Microsoft Outlook (the most commonly used application by business users) that would allow full device management capabilities (updates, application purchase, install, sync, etc…); this would take place of the current BlackBerry Desktop Manager. I would also make alternative means of syncing the ‘Berry available such as a plug-in for Firefox or a completely online, hosted solution. However it is done, the core premise remains: make it simple for the user to update, backup, sync and install new applications. IMHO, the simplest way is to embed or plug-in to an existing application that is already running on the user’s machine for the majority of the day. Just like the proverb “out of sight, out of mind,” I believe the opposite is true here.
Readers, I’d love to know your thoughts. Do you agree with any/all of this post? Did I miss anything fundamentally important to RIM’s success going forward? Would you like your device profile and information stored in the cloud?
Note: These are my personal beliefs and do not reflect the thoughts and opinions of the BlackBerry Partners Fund.