RIM circles the wagons, but the BlackBerry 10 caravan needs to get moving

The troubled smartphone maker prepares for its last stand at the BlackBerry Jam Americas developer conference

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It's cold and quiet at the San Jose Convention Center on the second day of the BlackBerry Jam Americas conference. It's as if the AC is keyed in to accommodate a larger crowd — RIM says that 1,500 developers registered for the event, but on day two it certainly doesn't look like the majority of them are here. RIM didn't officially launch BlackBerry 10 this week, but it did give developers and consumers the tools they need to prepare for the platform's real launch — which is still some unspecified number of months away.

RIM knows full-well that success doesn't ride on just whether or not it is able to keep its enterprise customers, ship a good OS, and create a beautiful piece of hardware. BlackBerry 10 needs apps, so RIM is pushing hard to get them. Hence the "Jam" events, of which this week's is just one of many the company is holding around the world. Given that it's one of many such developer events, it's not fair to expect it to be huge — but given that RIM unveiled some new BlackBerry 10 details, the mood here is one of muted optimism.

BlackBerry 10 needs apps

The executives here didn't make mention of "BlackBerry People" much this week, but they didn't have to: beyond a small portion of the press, the descriptor applies to everybody here. Kevin Michaluk, founder of CrackBerry.com, compared this year's Jam to last year's DevCon. "The people that are here are the committed people," he said, whereas last year's non-announcement announcement of the "leapfrogging" BBX platform (as it was called at the time) was made to a larger group that still contained disaffected developers who'd not yet left the platform. They're gone now, and it's up to RIM to bring them back.

It's the familiar chicken and egg conundrum of users and apps

There's a fundamental tension that comes with any smartphone platform that isn't proven — or officially launched — yet. It's the familiar chicken and egg conundrum of users and apps: consumers won't commit to the platform until they're confident there will be the apps they want, developers won't make apps until they know that there will be users to buy them. Multiply that tension with RIM's flagging North American marketshare and the widespread assumption that the company can't really come back and you have the formula for understanding the challenges BlackBerry 10 faces.

Both the company and its still-committed developers are refreshingly realistic about these challenges. The blind, bombastic hubris that we saw in former co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis used to permeate the company and its events is gone. It has been replaced with a more nuanced confidence that nevertheless still seems unjustified to those outside the bubble.

"RIM feels like a startup again."

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins says that the company has a "clear shot at number three" in the smartphone market, yet he still says that the company is eventually aiming for number one. There's a realism there — but it's not quite yet humility yet — that was sorely missing in years past. There's also an entirely new management team that's pushing RIM to move faster than it ever has before. "RIM feels like a startup again," says Michaluk, and that go-go, high-stakes mentality is definitely present in the executives we heard from this week.

Of course, a company facing dire straits is going to project confidence to its developers — but I get the feeling that those left after the company's layoffs still really do believe, as do the relatively small number of attendees at Jam. How does one account for this continued dissonance between the attitude here and the not-incorrect conventional wisdom that BlackBerry 10's chances are slim at best?

For one thing, against all odds, BlackBerry 10 looks like a good smartphone platform. BlackBerry 10's user interface is a mix of elements from nearly every smartphone OS you can imagine, taking elements from the iPhone, webOS, Windows Phone, Windows 8, and even MeeGo (MeeGo!). The company's core focus on messaging and email persists in a "BlackBerry Hub" that's accessible with a single gesture from anywhere in the OS. The QNX core enables full, true multitasking of up to eight apps at a time. More importantly, it seems very fast and fluid — although there are still beta bugs and hangups that RIM absolutely needs to iron out before launch. BlackBerry 10 is as good at using HTML5 as any platform I've seen. It borrows UI elements from webOS, but it pushes HTML5 code much faster than that platform ever did and integrates HTML5-developed apps more deeply into the platform than either Android or iOS do. On the enterprise side, it also should reach feature parity with BB7 when it comes to security and IT management tools.

Against all odds, BlackBerry 10 looks like a good smartphone platform

RIM has deep and longstanding relationships with carriers around the world. Even in North America, where RIM has struggled, there’s the chance that a carrier like Verizon or AT&T could potentially see BlackBerry 10 as a bulwark against Android and iOS dominance should Windows Phone 8 fail to get traction. Heins has spent the last three weeks on a worldwide tour to pitch BlackBerry to carriers and he claims there’s plenty of enthusiasm. "We're not just another open platform on the market, we are BlackBerry," he exclaimed to the press. There may not be room for a fourth player in the smartphone market, so RIM will be using every bit of whatever brand equity it has left in this fight.

From a development standpoint, RIM has finally resolved the confusing mix of messages it used to give to developers. Yes, developers can still work in any number of environments — from native code to HTML5 to Flash (which, oddly, is not getting jettisoned). However, the tools have now been finalized and clearer direction on which methods are best (hint: not Flash) has been given. Whatever you may think of Alec Saunders' music stylings (more on that below), the head of developer relations for RIM has clarified the company's communication with developers.

What BlackBerry 10 lacks is the "Wow, I must have that and will wait for it" feeling. It's competent and appears to be technically sound, but even RIM's CEO admits that these are "table stakes." Some portion of RIM's 80 million subscribers will upgrade — and perhaps enough of them will do so soon enough to keep the company chugging along — but to really survive RIM will need to expand and steal market share away from other platform. At minimum, RIM needs to remove reasons to avoid BlackBerry 10. At the very least, it needs the big name apps that people care about.

With a few exceptions, RIM either doesn't have them or is holding off from announcing them. The only two widely-known companies to demo apps on BlackBerry 10 this week were Foursquare and Gameloft. EA, Skype, Instagram, Netflix, Google, Spotify, Rdio, and many others are staying silent on BlackBerry 10 support. That's not enough to break RIM's spirit, though, because RIM still has another card to play: long-standing partnerships with key players in the industry.

RIM has surprisingly strong ties with the big social apps

The company also has surprisingly strong ties with the big social apps: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. All three are will have apps on BlackBerry 10 at launch and all three are intelligently built-into the BlackBerry Hub. RIM has shown off just one of the three, the Facebook app. It's coded natively instead of in HTML5, just like the iOS app, and it looks identical to the iOS app and is targeting identical functionality with a few BlackBerry-specific extras thrown in.

It's also coded primarily by people at RIM, not Facebook — but the story is slightly more complicated than that. We spoke with T.A. McCann, RIM's VP of BBM and social communities, who made the case that the app is actually more of a collaboration than solely a RIM effort. The companies talk weekly, if not more often, and already have established relationships. "We have lots of success on BBOS [BB7] specifically with them." That partnership is apparently beneficial to Facebook and Twitter in that RIM is still strong in developing markets with BB7 and therefore its helping those companies. McCann says these companies tell RIM that "We're growing in markets where we want to grow, and you guys are continuing to grow, and in many cases you're the dominant player in these markets."

RIM has parlayed that relationship into support for BB10 — if only nominal support — meaning that at least a few of the "must-have" apps will be available at launch. McCann also believes that because RIM is a "mobile-only company" that is more focused on both mobile and social (thanks in no small part to its 60 million BBM users) than even Apple, Google, or Microsoft. "The end result is deep engagement from people on both sides of the table, yielding pretty fast innovation. In some ways [we will have] the best Facebook application on any platform."

"It's a balance. In all cases, the level of effort on both sides is increasing."

About the concern that RIM doing the development is a sign that these companies aren't fully committed, McCann says that "It's a balance. In all cases, the level of effort on both sides is increasing. We're all putting a lot of effort into it, where you draw the line of 'who bought the beers tonight?' is somewhat irrelevant." RIM isn’t the first smartphone player to take this tack — both Microsoft and even Palm developed their own Facebook apps directly instead of waiting for Facebook to do it.

This kind of deep partnership isn't sustainable for every app and McCann and RIM recognize that — but in key areas the company is doing what it can to ensure it has some of the apps it needs. The rest will need to come from simple, straightforward sales to solve the chicken-and-egg app problem. That can't happen until BlackBerry 10 devices actually begin shipping, so both RIM and its potential community of developers are still stuck in kind of limbo.

The job of pushing developers out of that limbo and into creating apps falls to Alec Saunders, VP of Developer Relations, and his team. Enter the one thing that seemed to get more attention than anything else at BlackBerry Jam Americas 2012: the rah-rah video that turned REO Speedwagon's "Keep on loving you" into a promise from RIM to its developers.


The rah-rah attitude is undercut with wry self-awareness.

As cringingly bad as the video is, I should tell you that it straight-up killed with the "BlackBerry People" at the event. This video is nearly the perfect representation of the feeling here at BlackBerry Jam. It's upbeat and painfully awkward in a way that calls Microsoft's ridiculous Vista/Springsteen cover video to mind (Saunders, like much of the fresh blood at RIM, used to work at Microsoft). Yet the video is also self-effacing, winking, and has a subtext built-in that acknowledges that things aren't great right now. The rah-rah attitude is undercut with wry self-awareness. RIM's former hubris has been replaced with a new confidence that's still off-putting, but at least recognizes that it's a little quixotic.

The executives in the video, RIM's developers, and the video itself are all in on the corny joke. The question is whether people outside the bubble will appreciate those nuances. BlackBerry People may appreciate the dark humor, but the risk — both for this video and for RIM writ large — is that everybody else will see a different punchline.

The wagons are circled

The wagons are circled. Strange as it may seem, RIM are doing a lot of the right things in order to have a successful launch — but even then it may not be enough. One thing RIM hasn't done is ship. You can't reach the promised land if you don't get the caravan moving.

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