Third-party BlackBerry software development a learning process for RIM

Research in Motion has initiated a renewed focus on working with third-party BlackBerry software developers in order to stave off competition from Nokia, Microsoft and Apple. But RIM and ISVs are still learning how to work together.

As Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) tries to build a thriving third-party application ecosystem for the BlackBerry, the company and its independent software vendor (ISV) partners are learning some hard lessons about working together.

"We're going to try to have a thriving ISV community as well as third-party apps," said David Yach, CTO of RIM. "We don't want to write them all, but … we've learned a lot about what it takes to make a compelling mobile application."

Some BlackBerry software developers, however,  have a lot to learn, he said.

"It surprised me a bit how challenging a lot of application developers are finding it to really get their mind-set around [mobile applications]," Yach said. "The usage model is different. It's one or two minutes of active use at a time, instead of half an hour. What that really forces you to do is really think through what the user is going to do."

However, some ISVs working on Blackberry software have found that RIM has some lessons left to learn about working with them, too.

"We have plans to support iPhone and RIM as they have more open APIs," said Pej Roshan, Agito Network Inc.'s vice president of marketing, about his company's new RoamAnywhere suite. So far, however, that access has not been made available, pushing Santa Clara, Calif.-based Agito to focus on other handsets.

With its superior approach to push email, security and management, RIM hasn't focused on the development of third-party mobile applications until relatively recently. The competition has been playing serious catch-up, forcing RIM's hand.

Mobile newcomer Apple has made an improved email experience a top priority with its iPhone, and Microsoft has significantly upgraded its own push capabilities with Windows Mobile. Both have come out with stronger enterprise feature sets.

I told people all you have to worry about is reducing the amount of data you send and reducing the amount of requests you send, and even that seemed too complicated.
David Yach
CTORIM

So while BlackBerry has seen continued strong growth in both users and market share, the company has sought to extend its competitive advantage in other areas, particularly as enterprises and consumers demand more than just mobile email and Web access.

While the company has supported third-party applications for years, the offerings remained slim, leading RIM to launch a $150 million application development fund and tackle high-profile projects like a mobile SAP CRM application.

Since then, there have been other big announcements, such as improved video support and a richer API, but the process of opening up to third parties has not been without its hiccups.

"When we first came out with our mobile database solution … I told people all you have to worry about is reducing the amount of data you send and reducing the amount of requests you send, and even that seemed too complicated," Yach said. "I don't mean to diminish the capabilities of the people working on this stuff, but the constraints are so real."

He said part of the impetus for the RIM-SAP AG partnership was to demonstrate to larger software companies how to properly mobilize.

"We're finding a lot of small companies are fine with it," he said. "Part of the reason we're working with SAP on the SAP application is to say, here's what you could do to make a compelling application in this space, which is different than how a traditional SAP developer thinks."

That includes teaching developers to focus on the tasks that mobile users will most need, and making sure they're streamlined for professionals -- and consumers -- on the go.

"There's nothing magic about it," he said. "The same principles would make a much better application on the desktop, but you can get away from it better there."

The frustration has at times been mutual: As RIM tries to re-orient, there is a lag between what level of access the company offers compared with its competitors.

Roshan said one of his company's latest offerings would be coming to only Nokia and Windows Mobile phones while Agito waits for greater access to BlackBerry's inner workings.

"Some things we can't talk about because we're under NDA, but I can say we're waiting for them to give us stuff," Roshan said. "Agito's a startup, and if we want to do something, we can do a start to finish developed release in six months."

Trying to work with RIM, however, to get Agito's software working on the device requires a longer view of things.

After requesting information on specific application programming interfaces or upcoming phone features, Roshan said, RIM often takes months between promised plans and actual implementations, and then another few months for the features to make their way into a phone.

That pace is just part of doing business with most large companies, he added.

"It's not like RIM is broken or anything," he said. "That's what Cisco and Avaya is like. Every big company is like that. I don't fault them, but we're not in control at this point."

As a result, Agito's RoamAnywhere still doesn't support the BlackBerry. The company displays an optimistic "Coming Soon" banner for both BlackBerry and the iPhone in its marketing material. In the meantime, Roshan said, Agito has also chosen to focus on the European market, which is largely dominated by Nokia and Windows Mobile devices, and where BlackBerry has relatively low penetration.

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