When Apple Inc. (AAPL:US) began offering $1,599 tickets to its developers’ conference last week, the event sold out in less than two hours. Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), whose BlackBerry expo starts today, is working a bit harder.
The conference in Orlando, Florida, has plenty of space available. RIM has sought to entice developers with an early look at the new BlackBerry 10 phones, which are due later this year. The company is giving away prototypes of the devices in an effort to jump-start enthusiasm and get people designing software for the new technology.
RIM is struggling to maintain the interest of developers, who are flocking to Apple’s iOS or Google Inc. (GOOG:US)’s Android. Smartphone applications worldwide, everything from Instagram to “Fruit Ninja,” generate more than $13 billion a year, and many app programmers don’t get enough payback designing for RIM (RIMM:US)’s less popular platform. After product delays and market-share losses, the company has to convince attendees that the new BlackBerry operating system can restore its past glory.
“There’s definitely a section of the market that has to be won over,” Adam Linford, head of mobile apps at Truphone, a London-based developer of Internet-calling software for Android, iPhone and BlackBerry devices.
The prototype devices, distributed to developers today, have a 4.2-inch display and resemble a scaled-down version of the RIM’s PlayBook tablet. While the prototypes lack the physical keyboard that has been a hallmark of most BlackBerrys, Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins today showed off features like word prediction that he said will make typing on the virtual keyboard easy for BlackBerry fans. And some of the BlackBerry 10 phones will have traditional keyboards, the company said.
Alec Saunders, RIM’s head of developer relations, has become the chief evangelist for BlackBerry 10 in the seven months since he joined the company. He’s been sending daily tweets on Twitter for weeks, working to promote the BlackBerry 10 Jam developer event -- a confab held alongside RIM’s larger BlackBerry World conference. Still, even developers that build BlackBerry apps see it as an uphill battle.
A survey this year by Appcelerator and IDC found that 89 percent of developers were “very interested” in writing software for the iPhone, while the figure was 79 percent for Android. Only 16 percent of developers said the same about the BlackBerry.
While the old BlackBerry has more than 60,000 apps, the upgrade will require developers to start over and create programs for the new operating system. RIM does have about 10,000 apps available that were created for the PlayBook tablet that should be able to easily transfer to the first BlackBerry 10 devices, Saunders said in March.
Still, that puts RIM further behind Apple, which has more than 600,000 apps in its store, and Google, with more than 500,000. The global app market will grow to $35.6 billion in 2016, from $13.4 billion this year, according to research firm Yankee Group.
Improved software and developer tools for the new operating system, known as BB10, will make it easier to build apps. Even so, RIM’s declining sales make the proposition less attractive to developers, especially for those who already do well off of Android and the iPhone, Linford said.
“The technology is right -- it’s something people can work with, and the hardware is good,” he said. But it will come down to how RIM takes it to market, Linford said. The company hasn’t set a release date yet for BB10 devices, saying only that the debut will happen in the latter half of the year.
The stakes have never been higher for RIM in its 28-year history. RIM is counting on BB10 to revive BlackBerry demand in the U.S., where sales plummeted 57 percent last quarter.Heins said he’s weighing strategic options for RIM, including licensing its new software. He also hasn’t ruled out a sale of the company.
“I joined RIM three months ago and a lot has been said and written about RIM in this time,” Heins said in a speech today at the conference. “We are laser-focused on delivering on time and exceeding your expectations.”
Shares of Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM fell 5.7 percent to $13.48 at the close in New York. The stock is down more than 90 percent from its mid-2008 peak.
Some RIM developers are skipping BlackBerry World altogether. That includes Kunal Gupta, the founder and CEO of Toronto-based Polar Mobile, which builds apps for magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Vogue and Variety.
Supply Versus Demand
While Polar Mobile has about 300 BlackBerry apps, Gupta hasn’t yet committed fresh resources to BB10. He’s focusing more on Android, iOS and new platforms such as Facebook Inc. (FB:US)’s site.
RIM will have to do more to persuade business customers to bother making BB10 apps, Gupta said. If users continue to abandon RIM’s platform, developers will have a harder time making a living building for BlackBerry, Gupta said. “Saunders is focusing on the supply. RIM needs to focus on the demand.”
For his magazine clients, the BlackBerry is just not as lucrative for advertising sales, he said.
“The ad experience hasn’t got better on BlackBerry, whereas it has on Android and iOS,” said Gupta, who studied software engineering at the University of Waterloo, the same place where BlackBerry inventor Mike Lazaridis went more than two decades earlier.
With BB10, RIM is rebuilding the operating system from scratch. Its previous software was saddled with an aging Web browser that couldn’t match the iPhone’s capabilities. BB10, in contrast, evolved from software called QNX, which is used to run nuclear power plants and unmanned U.S. Army tanks. RIM bought the software in 2010 for $200 million.
Saunders has been crisscrossing North America in recent months, telling developers about the stability and multitasking abilities that QNX brings to BB10. RIM has about 1,000 developers signed up for BlackBerry Jam, and is giving out up to 2,000 of the BB10 prototypes, the company said last week. A conference pass is $299 -- a fifth the cost of Apple’s developer event, which last year was capped at 5,000 attendees.
BlackBerry World, a broader show aimed at everyone from customers to RIM partners, is held less than a mile away. It has 5,000 confirmed attendees, close to last year’s numbers, according to RIM.
Fewer financial analysts and investors are making the trip this year. RIM said in March it would stop giving revenue and profit forecasts because the “ongoing weakness” of U.S. sales made predictions difficult. It then postponed the investor day that traditionally starts the conference until after the introduction of BB10.
Matt Thornton, an analyst at Avian Securities LLC in Boston, isn’t going to BlackBerry World, despite attending each of the past five years.
“I don’t see the need -- I would be surprised if more than 5 percent are going,” he said of his colleagues. Thornton, who has a neutral rating on the stock, doesn’t know any investors heading to Orlando.
Kris Thompson, an analyst with National Bank Financial in Toronto, said he or someone from his firm has always gone in years past but won’t this year.
“There’s not a lot of value going if management are not going to be available,” said Thompson, who expects the stock to underperform (RIMM:US) its peers.
RIM’s main effort is getting the first BB10 phone out in time for the year-end holiday shopping season. Even if the introduction goes smoothly, the company will then face another hurdle: Apple’s next iPhone is expected at the same time, Thornton said.
“It’s going to be tough to get it to stand out when they’re going to be launching it around the same time as iPhone 5,” he said.
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