RIM losing local app developers

Elizabeth Howell
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Despite 'deficiencies', some Ottawa firms remain bullish on new BlackBerry

Research in Motion’s push to develop a new generation of BlackBerry devices is coming too late for some developers in Ottawa, who say they are investing less in creating apps for the Waterloo-based firm’s smartphones.

Purple Forge's Brian Hurley. (Provided)

Many local developers are frustrated with RIM, notably with the way apps are made through its platform.

“Working with RIM is good. They offer a big client base … but that being said, there has been a level of complacency,” says Adam McNamara, the co-founder of Select Start Studios. It specializes in mobile design work across platforms ranging from Apple to BlackBerry to Android.

“One of the biggest challenges is that the developer tools are very far behind most of the other platforms, especially Apple. I think this is something they’ve acknowledged; there’s a big deficiency there.”

Likewise, Purple Forge’s Brian Hurley rhymed off a list of problems: the need to develop different versions for different BlackBerry models, the extra lines of code needed to deal with BlackBerry’s security requirements, and the long response time developers get when asking RIM for help.

“As a Canadian, you want to support a Canadian company, but it comes down to the business,” said Mr. Hurley, whose company mainly develops for Apple platforms, and has created apps such as the Will and Kate iPhone app that ran in tandem with the royal visit to Ottawa in July.

Early that month, technology analyst website Boy Genius Report published an open letter from what it said was a former high-ranking RIM employee.

“The truth is, no one in RIM dares to tell management how bad our tools still are. Even our closest dev partners do their best to say it politely, but they will never bite the hand that feeds them,” the letter read.

RIM’s stated response to the letter would not confirm if an employee had written the missive.

The company added it was “actively addressing” concerns about its development process.

One Ottawa shop is betting on that happening quickly.

Paul Dumais is currently at the helm of a six-month-old company called Smarter Apps, which develops solely for BlackBerry and now employs seven full-time employees and three part-time students.

He started out in 1999 at a Waterloo firm, MKS, that happened to lease space next to a “small company called RIM.”

“Every day at lunch I would sit down and see people with their BlackBerrys. They were showing us what they were,” he recalled.

Those lunchtime meetings proved valuable, as he became senior technical architect at RIM in 2008 and created the company’s app store to target the consumer market.

Today, he says there’s plenty of room to grow if RIM offers the QNX operating system on Blackberry, as planned. He adds he “can’t understand” why developers are turning away, but doesn’t mind as it’s less competition going forward.

“If you have the patience and the knowledge and the expertise to do this, the nice thing about the BlackBerry market is that it is not very crowded,” he said.

Mr. Dumais worked closely with John Criswick as co-founders of Rove, which develops mobile software for information technology administrators who need to monitor computer systems. That company was also a heavy developer for BlackBerry.

Mr. Criswick said the experience helped him with another company he created: Magmic, a mobile gaming firm.

And he’s also bullish on QNX contributing to the BlackBerry.

“I see QNX as a way to take us into new areas … because QNX is everywhere,” he said, citing its automotive systems as an example.

“My experience with RIM is they’re often attacked,” he continued.

“But they’re really strong, and have strong momentum as a company, and they know what they’re up to. But they’re not good at communicating and marketing. That’s the traditional Canadian way.”

Organizations: Apple, Select Start Studios

Geographic location: Ottawa, Waterloo

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Recent comments

  • John Criswick
    July 22, 2011 - 01:07

    From a guy with three companies on the go each with a BlackBerry angle - the RIM App opportunitty remains huge and continues to grow. I don't agree with very much that has been posted here in comments. By the way, most of the growth that is quoted for Android (aka the 550,000 activations a day) is replacement of feature phones (Worldwide) based on WAP and Java/MIDP platforms - not other smart phone vendors. So it is only natural that Android would show up in enterprise and appear to be competing against RIM.

  • Adam McNamara
    July 20, 2011 - 10:42

    Fred, I think everyone does want to root for them. But, it's challenging to root for a company that's in denial, at least publicly, about something that seems so obvious to onlookers. Launching seven (SEVEN...) new phones is not the way to deal with their major challenges: 1. Existing and future device fragmentation (across screen size, capabilities, OS version, and now platform) 2. Aging developer tools, or cobbled together off-the-shelf technologies. 3. Horrendously misguided marketing (or rather, lack of meaningful differentiation) 4. A user base diminishing in size relative to Apple and Google. You cannot possibly compete with a company who's profits exceed your revenues without merciless focus. They appear to be doing anything but. The millions of government and enterprise workers who are locked to aging, inferior devices are quickly turning from their product champions to their most vocal critics. Apple owns mobile industrial design. They have little to no hope of competing here. Google owns mass-market distribution with OEM relationships. There is little to no hope competing here. RIM has to pick a remaining niche and dominate it in order to remain remotely relevant. With 80%+ of Fortune 100s deploying iPhone and iPads, I fear it's too little, too late for RIM. Emerging markets may be a different story, but who wants to be on the low-margin business when you've tasted such a high-margin one before?

    • fred boulanger
      July 20, 2011 - 11:21

      Adam I agree with you. i believe what you say as well is RIM needs to be simple again. Design with simple as the modus operandi, nothing else matters. Their business internals is now complex because of the last five years growth, business offering is complex, their devices are complex. I'm rooting for the RIM that will put the the three steps program in place, not the one we perceive to be out of touch right now. 1)Lead, 2)Design and 3)grass root movement!

  • Terry J.
    July 20, 2011 - 10:37

    I've developed 4 apps for Apple's iOS and am working with a small distributed team on another. We were looking at porting to Android and Blackberry but a) we don't like Jada so Android was out and b) Blackberry's development system is TERRIBLE. That's not an understatement. Apple's XCode development system is the same one used for Mac OSX development work. If you can work on OSX, it's not a big leap to iOS. Comparing the Apple's to RIM's dev system is like comparing a 50 caliber rifle to a stone axe. It's really no competition.

  • Sherif Koussa
    July 20, 2011 - 10:37

    Fred, You hit the nail on the head. Let me add to that the market is too large now for one company to try to be everything for everyone. RIM was #1 in smart phones when smart phones were only used by business people. Apple opened up the market to the mass consumers with iPhone and iPads and now everyone else including RIM are saying AHA...why didn't I think of that. Now, there is nothing wrong of that, they are now playing the catch-up game and #2 to the market, the game that Apple played for decades except that they are not good at it. That being said: RIM has two options: Option 1: as you said, get the slap and move on, but move on with more business oriented products specially with the stuff they got from QNX; everybody has a phone but more importantly everyone has a car ! Option 2: you can play second to market game, but learn from Apple how to do it, don't use your business oriented products to go after kids and youth, you can't be truck manufacturer and go after gas economy car buyers using a smaller, more fancy truck!. I second Fred on that where they have to go and use their engineering power to re-engineer, not their phones, but their process.

  • Fred Boulanger
    July 20, 2011 - 10:09

    This post can also be found on my blog(http://blogs.picpacwrack.net/) Yes RIM has huge challenges now and ahead. Any business losing momentum is a difficult business to be in. Lots of RIM's employees' are just plain confused right now. Just 24months ago they could do no wrong, and today they work for a company that is perceived as doing nothing right. The moral is things change quickly, and without warnings. Adam calls this complacency, it can certainly be. When you're number one staying ahead requires lots of listening and observing. Somewhere along the way RIM stopped listening and observing what was happening and where things were going. Actually let me re-phrase, they do listen and observe but only one market segment, the ones they were serving well, the users that were swearing they needed a keyboard, the ones who never wanted to use their device for other things than bbm and emails. Leardership: The leadership of RIM is under huge stress and being tested. The experience underway is a humbling one, take the slap, learn from it and move on. The troops need to work hard on what matters. When you're number one you start focussing on all sorts of things that don't matter to the upstarts. Things that are slowing things down to protect you instead of accelerating things to grab more market share. I say 1)gut the overhead, and the red-tape that has been put in place over the last 5years. 2)It's time to go back to first principles of product creation: a)explore&observe, b)work really hard on things that matter, c)test out the prototypes, then go back to a) Design: Design is how it works, it has to be in activity Some companies like apple are great at design. RIM has a long way to go in this domain. RIM does design well don't get me wrong, still they are miles away to have a simple product. Compare the BB with anything out there it's more complex, it has too many options. It's the difference between a design centric (apple) organisation, and an engineering centric one (rim). The former looks at the world from a task to be accomplished model, while the later is about bubbling features up. Simplify: The next platforms will need to kiss good bye backward compatibility. This is going to hurt before it feels good, and it's necessary. As Bryan puts it creating products for the Blackberry is very difficult because of the older devices and OS. It's reset time, to compete and to be just as nimble as the competition, RIM needs to let go of legacy, it's slowing them down. They have the best opportunity to do it now, they are being beaten on, the opportunity is ripe for it. Grass root: RIM has never been really good at fostering development for its applications. Maybe they need to do something like apple did a long time ago. Spin out software applications development in it's own organisation, and let them have their own P&L. Apple did this with Filemaker back in the days, it's helped create the ecosystem, why not do this with all apps at RIM now. I'm sure the app team will become more nimble and create even better products out of it. I'd take that challenge right on! Going and raising the awareness to RIM's platform with developers is not happening. Rob Woodbridge and myself host Mobile Mondays here in Ottawa(http://mobilemondayottawa.com/). Rim has over 1000 people in Ottawa, no one from RIM is showing up to the events. To get developers to create applications for your platforms you have to go where they are at the grass root. Wrapping it up: RIM has to get on the get on design wise simplify it's organisation, and simplify it's products. This is hard, this takes time, and I hope they get to do it, because I'm rooting for them.