RIM emerges as tech anchor, raises local stakes for success of BB10
When Apple unveiled its App Store in 2008, local BlackBerry developer Paul Dumais – the co-founder of Idokorro Mobile, which later became Rove Mobile – approached Research in Motion and suggested it follow suit and provide a direct channel from developers to customers.
© Joël Côté-Cright
Smarter Apps directors Paul Dumais and David MacFarlane.
RIM didn’t have the resources at the time to build one, and asked Mr. Dumais if he could handle the job. Alongside a team of 60 developers hired specifically for the task, BlackBerry App World was created in Ottawa.
Mr. Dumais, alongside colleague David MacFarlane, helped build a fully operational app store, and then launched a company to develop apps to put in it.
Smarter Apps was born in 2009.
“We saw that there were a lot of holes, a lot of apps missing from the store,” Mr. Dumais says. Many apps popular in the Apple App Store were missing on the new BlackBerry App World – including one to use YouTube, an app preloaded onto all iPhones before being phased out in iOS 6.
Seeing an opportunity, Smarter Apps built a YouTube app for BlackBerry. Next came a Facebook chat app. After discovering that Rovio wasn’t interested in creating an Angry Birds app on BlackBerry, the company created a clone called Angry Farm and published it for RIM customers hungry for the popular mobile game. The same was true for Instagram, so Smarter Apps created Instaphoto, another clone that was the first of its kind on the RIM platform.
“We were BlackBerry lovers and BlackBerry users, and we wanted a YouTube app, we wanted a Facebook chat app, and those didn’t exist so we built them for ourselves,” Mr. Dumais says.
Smarter Apps generated $500,000 in revenues in its first year and slightly more than $1 million the next. Much of that success came from its ties to RIM in Ottawa.
“It’s really useful to know somebody at Apple or Google or RIM,” Mr. MacFarlane says. “The RIM people have been very helpful to us. It’s a beneficial relationship for both of us. We don’t have that relationship with Apple.”
It helps to have a solid RIM support system in town. Ottawa-based QNX Software Systems, purchased by RIM in 2010, developed the company’s new operating system. After its app store was created here, an App World development team was established locally as well. And it doesn’t hurt that Alex Saunders, RIM’s vice-president of developer relations, is based in Ottawa.
“These people are here, and you have contact directly with them,” Mr. Dumais says. “From a BlackBerry perspective, Ottawa has a huge advantage there.”
Other local companies have acted on this opportunity as well. Mobilisk creates apps and themes for the platform, and Distill Mobile is made up of three former RIM employees who now develop for the company.
Mr. Dumais says he has found 70 local companies developing apps, many of them for BlackBerry.
WAITING FOR MORE
Despite the long wait for the release of RIM’s BlackBerry 10 handset, many developers have remained loyal to the Canadian company and believe in its future opportunities – a lot of which could come from Ottawa.
“Let’s face it, BlackBerry and RIM are betting their future on QNX here in Ottawa,” says Fred Boulanger, CEO and co-founder of Gatineau software firm Macadamian Technologies Inc.
Having BlackBerry App World’s development team here means local developers can ask questions about what it takes to be featured or approved on the store, he added, and networking events are often well-attended by RIM employees.
But since RIM’s new technology won’t be released until next year, and money for developers won’t roll in until a significant number of users adopt the technology, Smarter Apps has begun diversifying by developing enterprise apps for iOS and Android. It has also switched from paid BlackBerry apps to free ones with in-app advertising, where Smarter Apps gets a few cents for each ad click.
Aging devices have led to the decrease in purchased apps, says Mr. Dumais.
“It’s kind of like an old car,” he says. “People aren’t going to pay to put new upgrades on it.”
But he believes the 80 million BlackBerry users will be hungry for new apps when the latest handset is released. That’s why, while serving on a panel at the Ottawa Gaming Conference in May, he told attendees that BlackBerry is the platform with the most development and money-making potential.
“Especially if you’re just starting, it’s a lot harder on other platforms to get noticed,” he says. “If you build on BlackBerry, you have all these great resources right here in Ottawa. You have people you can connect to.”
While RIM has reported many layoffs, most have taken place at its Kitchener-Waterloo headquarters. That’s not where the company’s major developments are taking place.
Mr. Dumais predicts that in the future, a greater percentage of RIM employees will be in Ottawa instead. And when they leave RIM, they will create a whole industry of expert developers who gained their experience from a company to whom they remain loyal.
Nick Quain, founder of CellWand - which is the developer of the #TAXI app to connect people with cabs - says he will continue to develop for RIM because its swan song hasn’t been sung.
“I think a lot of people are writing off RIM but it’s important to remember that Samsung didn’t have a smartphone three years ago and now the Galaxy S III is number one,” Mr. Quain says. “This is a fast moving market. If BlackBerry 10 is able to make a leap forward … it’s still possible for them to rebuild themselves. And I’m looking forward to watching.”