Designing the Perfect Mobile Application Store


I briefly touched on application stores as part of my last post, Creating a Better BlackBerry Experience. After re-reading the post and reflecting on some of the comments, I felt that a more in-depth follow-up was required to discuss why the overarching design of a mobile application store is paramount to its adoption, usability and ultimately, success.

This post will focus on how I believe the design of BlackBerry App World (“BBAW”) can be improved for both enterprises and consumers.

BlackBerry App World for Enterprises

When BBAW was first released, many BES-connected users had problems downloading applications due to permission-based issues. RIM can’t do much to change corporate policies, but RIM can implement a highly-anticipated BBAW for the enterprise. I am proposing that RIM creates an enterprise app store, similar to the app store announced by MobileIron in December 2009. MobileIron’s enterprise app store allows enterprises to create a repository of approved content and apps, which employees can then download and use with the full blessing of IT. In addition, an enterprise can create device or employee categories with permissions for certain types of content. As mentioned by Kevin Fitchard of Connected Planet, “Salesmen, for instance, would find Salesforce.com’s app in their approved storefront, while a field engineer would not. Both field engineers and salesman could have access to vehicle navigation services, and while a desk jockey might be able to download that same application, the company could set usage restrictions limiting when he or she could use it (say, business trips) or require the employee to pay the monthly service fee in a separately generated bill.” To me, this concept sounds like an app store that would help RIM sell more BlackBerry devices to enterprises, help IT administrators and make employees more productive (and happy) when mobile. Obviously, a more tidy billing mechanism will have to be in place, since I’d reckon the majority of enterprise won’t want to pay via PayPal.

BlackBerry App World for Consumers

In creating v2.0 of BBAW, RIM has a lot of work to do. My last post discusses a few elements that need improvement including the billing systems, pre-loads and fewer bugs. I’d like to add a few more points to the discussion. To begin with, the billing system needs to be more dynamic and allow customers to attach credit cards to their profile for frictionless billing. The billing systems should also be flexible enough to power additional business models for application developers including subscription billing and in-application micro-transactions. Why not bring the minimum price-point to $0.99 as well?

Steven Berkovitz chimed-in to mention that with BES 5.0, there’s a full-blown web version of desktop manager; it uses an ActiveX control to connect to your Blackberry for operations requiring a physical connection and personal data is sync’d over-the-air (“OTA”). However, this functionality doesn’t yet extend to previously installed, licensed and configured applications. As a consumer, wouldn’t it be nice to buy your next BlackBerry, insert your SIM card, load your user profile from within an OTA-driven application and click “Restore Profile” to then have your data, applications (auto-detect new BlackBerry OS and download proper build for the new device) and configuration settings loaded onto your new device OTA? That is one step towards a BlackBerry device that can compete with future iPhone models in delivering the experience sought after by the ever-smarter and bells-and-whistles-seeking consumer today.

Many users are also confused by not being able to find certain apps in BBAW that show up for their friends or colleagues. By design, RIM only shows its users the apps available for their device. In a future version of BBAW, it would be nice to show users all the apps and allow users to be notified (by push, email, SMS, etc…) when the app is launched for their specific OS and device model. This could also give developers a sense of what devices are generating the most demand for their product so that they could focus their development efforts on the makes/models and locations that are going to yield that greatest financial rewards or user adoption.

Ubiquitous Access

BBAW needs to come pre-loaded on all (new) handsets. End of story. In cases where mobile carriers have a contractually dominant position over RIM on controlling content or applications available to mobile devices, RIM should provide those carriers with sufficient access and privileges to formally reject specific applications for use by their subscribers for their own reasons. In concert with these changes, RIM should enter into a formal revenue sharing agreement with carriers so that revenues generated from application one-time sales, subscriptions and micro-transactions can be shared. Once these deals are signed, RIM (or the mobile carrier) should push App World down to all BlackBerry devices. IMHO, this would be a win-win-win scenario for RIM, carriers and consumers.

If you were RIM, how would you design BlackBerry App World v2.0?

Creating a Better BlackBerry Experience


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.

mobile-value-chain

Figure 1. Mobile application value chain from developer to end-user.

Developer Tools
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
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.

Me: Rebranded


RIM just recently launched BlackBerry Messenger 5.0 (or BBM 5.0). In doing so, they have given each person a “trendy” new way to identify one another. Here’s my new identity:

It’s a QR Code, or a 2D-bar code, for those of you getting acquainted with the technology. Fairly new to North America, it’s actually been around since 1994, first developed in Japan, and quickly adopted by South Korea.
It’s actually very smart. By using this technology, RIM has developed buzz. Instead of having to be a computer science major, anyone can now add each other to the BBM community. Hold up your BlackBerry and scan a QR Code, and viola, you’ve just added a contact. Nice!
People are excited about these foreign images and are eager to upload, scan, share and discuss the process with their friends. The only problem is if you have too many friends: Kevin from Crackberry.com posted this to Twitter … 2 hours later, he had over 10,000 requests and his BlackBerry became unusable. Who said popularity was a good thing?

socialDeck Platform Demo


socialDeck, the creators of Shake & Spell on iPhone, Facebook and BlackBerry, have just launched a new demo on their website that discusses the various components in their technology platform and how it looks and feels across form factors.

The demo shows how the gameplay stays consistent across device types, and features such as their “trash talk wall” (or “chat”), leaderboards and social discovery engine all work.

For convenience sake, I’ve simply embedded the video below (view it at socialdeck):

The Future iPhone


It seems Apple has been on a patenting frenzy, and it may be sheding some light on what the next-gen Apple iPhones are going to look and feel like.

In a couple of recent articles by FierceMobile, they discuss a new series of patents recently filed by Apple: object ID and enhanced messaging and haptics and fingerprint IDs. Sounds pretty bad, right?

In any case, here is some more detail on what this could mean:

Object Identification Tools — Your iPhone could determine a user’s present surroundings and offer contextual information via RFID reader or camera. [LINK: US Patent Application 20090175499]

Improved Messaging — “Objectionable content filtering” on children’s text messages, message delivery notifications (ensuring messages got delivered, such as the functionality seen in BlackBerry Messager Messaging), and saving text that was sent to prevent re-entry of text. [LINKS: US Patent Application 2009017750, 20090176517]

Haptics Feedback Technology — Touch-based input components can use, for example, a grid of piezoelectric actuators to provide vibrational feedback to a user, while the user scrolls around a click wheel, slides across a trackpad, or touches a multi-touch display screen. Cool!! [LINK: US Patent Application 20090167704]

Fingerprint ID Safeguard — Besides the obvious login and authentication features, Apple discusses the possibility of using specific input signatures (or fingerprints) to launch specific commands or functions. Apple also alludes to designing a device with multiple fingerprint sensors to allow for advanced multi-touch, multi-fingerprint functionality. [LINK: US Patent Application 20090169070]

Lookin snazzy Apple. Looking forward to what’s around the corner.

Lessons from a BlackBerry App Developer


I just finished reading a very interesting article/story written by Marcus Watkins, who is the creator of PodTrapper. The article discusses his experiences and lessons learned in developing, pricing, marketing and selling his first mobile application on the BlackBerry platform. It was published June 22, 2009; so it’s still recent and very relevant.

Here is an overview of what it covers (taken from the article):

Introduction
BlackBerry Platform
Development
Look and Feel
It’s the Network
Background Apps/Memory
Pricing the App
DRM
Selling the App (Retailers)
Handango
Direct
MobiHand
BlackBerry App World
Initial Sales
Marketing
Sales Post-App World
Dealing [or not] with other companies
My Customers
Conclusion
Topic Outline

For all those BlackBerry developers out there. I hope you have had the chance to check out the App Store and apply for distribution through it’s channel; it can be extremely valuable. If you want to learn more about it, check out my blog post on the BlackBerry Partners Fund Blog called “The Next Wave: Mobile Applications and the BlackBerry Application Storefront,” which discusses some specifics about developing for BlackBerry App World.

Some BlackBerry developers (and outside observers) have recognized that there are some kinks in the process of getting onto BlackBerry App World. Kevin Talbot, co-manager of the BlackBerry Partners Fund, identifies some key issues plaguing BlackBerry App World and invites developers and others to comment and add their thoughts about what RIM can do to fix App World.

If you have just submitted an application, or are planning on developing an application soon, make sure to apply for the 2009 BlackBerry Partners Fund Developer Challenge.

Happy developing!

USSD: Lost in the Crowd?


All day long I am surrounded by BlackBerry and iPhone apps and business models. After listening to an intriguing talk by Nathan Eagle, a Professor at MIT, I started to think about how a single application can be developed to reach everyone in developing countries (a much larger proportion of mobile phone users than those in developed countries). Nathan mentioned that some applications in developing countries use USSD protocol as opposed to SMS or data-rich applications. I wanted to learn more.

Here are some of my findings:

USSD (“Unstructured Supplementary Services Data”) is a mature core mobile-network technology similar to Telnet; it is session-based. In fact, it is as old as GSM technology — and guess what — it works on EVERY GSM-based handset from a Nokia 1100 to a BlackBerry Bold.

Mobile software developers are constantly trying to find a way to write (code) once and reach many (different handset models). USSD can work for some application types, but not all. USSD will not offer feature-rich capabilities, but it can send and receive data through sessions (no data is saved on the device), allow for navigable menus, and it can interact with billing accounts on-file with wireless carriers.

After doing some research, it seems as though this technology is predominantly being exploited in developing countries, where there have been some very creative uses of USSD applications.

Here are some of the many uses this technology can provide (at a much cheaper cost than SMS messaging — a huge consideration for communication in developing countries):
– Mobile banking and payments
– Point-of-sale banking (using your mobile prepaid account as the source of payment)
– One-time password request notifications
– Weather services
– Menu-based navigation of corporate or city services
– Advertising
– Voice Chat
– Roaming

As it stands, USSD technology is being underused primarily due to a lack of available applications and content providers, a lack of understanding, and a lack of motivation at the operator level. Only recently, Bharti and Vodafone have productized this medium by launching USSD portals; largely however, this technology is under-developed and under-utilized.

Comments on a LinkedIN thread about USSD showed the following benefits of USSD technology (post from Gaurav Sarin):
1) Handset agnostic – 99% compatibility of active handsets
2) Easy Surfing – browser based experience for customers
3) Free content discovery for customers – since most operators do not generate CDRs of USSD sessions
4) Real Time session with the server – faster & more secure than SMS
5) Higher reliability as compared to SMSSMS has a 70 -80% successful delivery rate

What are your thoughts on USSD?

Financing Opportunities for Canadian Start-ups


I want to draw your attention to a blog post that I wrote on the BlackBerry Partners Fund website a few months ago. In times of recession, when cash is tight and purchase orders are scarce, understanding how and where to receive financing becomes of paramount important.

For additional details, please refer to the full article.

Here are some of the highlights:

If you are a mobile start up, please feel free to apply for Jump Start Financing at the BlackBerry Partners Fund, which can invest up to $500K USD into innovative start ups.