BlackBerry's uncertain future leaves app developers in limbo

Editor's Corner

Shane Schick

For several years now, it's felt as though most developers had their eyes focused on Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), while BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) was someone on the side, within their peripheral vision. Now I can't imagine the company is in their line of sight at all.

After seemingly endless speculation over who might acquire the troubled smartphone maker--and whether BlackBerry would remain intact or be sold off as a series of piece parts--the company's board of directors has decided to end its search and accept a new injection of funding from one of its biggest investors. There has also been a CEO change, from Thorsten Heins to John Chen. Those are the things we know for sure. The rest is pure speculation and mystery, neither of which will do much to shore up developer support for BlackBerry in the long term.

Unless Chen acts with lightning agility--which is rare, even for the most experienced turnaround specialists--BlackBerry will be in an awkward transition while its new strategy becomes clear. In the meantime, Google will be introducing Android KitKat, Apple will bring out iOS 7.0.4 and Samsung will be busy peddling its five most recent SDKs to encourage more apps to be built for its own devices. And Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) continues to push Windows Phone. BlackBerry's BB10, on the other hand, will likely be moribund, the platform of a company that failed to execute on a plan to catch up to its rivals.

Though BlackBerry's history within the enterprise seems like less of an advantage now, its recent success in attracting a cross-platform audience with its BBM service suggests there remains a chance it could appeal to consumers. If BlackBerry is no longer being sold, it would seem Chen's mission is to take that engineering talent and channel it back into making BB10 (or perhaps its successor) a hit.

Let's face it: The phones are becoming somewhat commoditized, where Apple resorts to a fingerprint scanner for a novelty effect. They can't make them much thinner or lighter. The differentiator will remain the platform and the apps that sit on top of it. BlackBerry has failed miserably in this last area, resorting to "port-a-thons" to get a critical mass of offerings in its BlackBerry World store. Its true competition now is probably not Apple or Google but Amazon, Opera and others which operate niche mobile stores but offer some kind of compelling use case. With Amazon, it's the connection back to its vast online marketplace. For Opera, it's the browser. BlackBerry either has to target a specific demographic--aging Boomers who find mobile technologies difficult to master? Business users who don't want to use apps for fun?--or be far better than anyone else at helping developers get discovered, engage users and make money from their apps.

The odds aren't good. Most developers have probably already written the company off. In fact, there's only one other technology vendor I can think of whose fortunes sank this low and which went through nearly as many sea changes of leadership and direction. It's worth remembering, though, that that company is Apple. -Shane