Research In Motion's Alec Saunders dishes on RIM's PlayBook update, BlackBerry 10

Alec Saunders

    Alec Saunders

Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) is in a period of transition right now as Thorsten Heins takes the reigns as sole CEO and the firm works to launch its BlackBerry 10 smartphones--the future of the company. Attracting developer support will be a crucial element of that strategy, Recently at Mobile World Congress, FierceWireless Editor Phil Goldstein sat down with Alec Saunders, RIM's vice president of developer relations. Saunders dished on the software update for RIM's PlayBook tablet, how RIM will attract developers and what he thinks about BlackBerry 10. This is a slightly edited version of that conversation

FierceDeveloper: PlayBook 2.0 brings a lot of functionality that wasn't there from the start, like native email and calendar. Why weren't these features there to begin with, and what do you think the update will do to drive Playbook adoption?

Alec Saunders: I can't really comment on why not. Ancient history. I wasn't around. It's been something that was coming for a while, obviously, and everybody recognized there was a gap with email and PIM. So far it's been pretty well received. There's a couple of things that I've noticed. First of all, I'm very active on Twitter, and I've seen lots and lots of compliments from various people saying how good it is. I think we're starting to see people reconsider, and, in some cases, even make purchases based on what they've seen with the PlayBook 2 software.

The other part about it is, for months I've been banging the drum and saying, hey Android developers, get your applications onto PlayBook because it's another marketplace that you can go sell your applications through. What we're seeing now is, of course, lots and lots of Android applications coming in and periodically, it's been twice in the last week, I've seen Android developers tweet about this. One developer said they've seen more downloads in two hours than he'd seen in the last three months on PlayBook. It's definitely true that there is pent-up hunger for applications on PlayBook. There's demand for it, and the people who are making the investments are seeing the benefits.

FierceDeveloper: In terms of the Android port-over strategy, why do you think that's a good strategy for RIM, and what's the feedback and acceptance of it been so far?

Saunders: Let's take it one step back and frame Android in terms of all of the other ways you can build applications on PlayBook. Today in PlayBook, you can build an app using HTML5 and our WebWorks framework. You can build it using C and C++. There are frameworks that have been ported onto the platform like Marmalade, Unity and Sheep 3D that are for gaming purposes. There is the option to build your applications in Flash. Or you can use any of a number of frameworks like Sencha or jQuery mobile. And, of course, there is the Android player. So, in every case, what we're doing is we're looking for an existing community of developers--including Qt, which we just announced--that we can bring to the platform. And what ends up happening, invariably, is they bring their application onto the platform, and then they start to look at ways to improve what they've done in order to build a better experience on the PlayBook device.          

FierceDeveloper: What does RIM have to do this year to convince developers to continue to develop for the PlayBook and for BlackBerry 10, and what are you doing to execute on that?

Saunders: I think the results are starting to speak for themselves. Developers who have chosen to target PlayBook are seeing really good results. We saw a huge spike in downloads over the Christmas season as we put more PlayBooks into the market, and games came that had been previously not been there. You might have seen that Angry Birds and Cut the Rope came out at the same time. What we're trying to do is to get that virtuous cycle moving. We have got to get the machine moving, getting the number of developers targeting it to increase, and what I think we're going to end up doing's going to become a self-perpetuating cycle. The challenge is--and that's what we've been working so hard at for the last six months since I started--to start to see that happening, and to start to get that machine moving. And it now is finally. You can't take your foot off the gas though.  

FierceDeveloper: Obviously there aren't BlackBerry 10 devices out there now, but if somebody is developing an app for the PlayBook, how easy is it going to be to get that onto BlackBerry 10 phones?

Saunders: It's a good question. And the technical answer is, they just work. The user experience answer is you are going to want to tweak the user experience on a BlackBerry 10 device, because when you pick it up it's a phone form factor instead of a tablet form factor. It's a touchscreen device, so the target of your finger on a small device as opposed to a large device is different. There are going to be things that you as a developer are going to want to do. But it should be pretty easy to do. It's the same development framework, [and] the same operating system. There will be additional things that the BlackBerry device can do, after all, it is a phone, for example, that you can't do for a PlayBook. You can start building applications today for PlayBook and be really confident that when Blackberry 10 devices ship your application will run in that environment.   

FierceDeveloper:  Recently you went through a lot of stats about BlackBerry App World.  You said there are now 174 million downloads per month and 30 downloads per user each year. App World now drives 43 percent more daily downloads per app than Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store, and 13 percent of developers are earning revenues in excess of $100,000. Given all that, why is there the perception that RIM is losing mindshare and not capturing the hearts of developers?

Saunders: How do I put this? For a long time we didn't talk about those things, and we kind of dug ourselves a hole. What I think we're doing now is we are talking about those things. And we're telling people that you can build a business on RIM platforms. And candidly, anybody who is looking at a development platform today, if you are considering iOS or Android and you're a small developer, what you're doing is you're buying a lottery ticket. And I think that's the attraction. But we know lots of small developers on the RIM platform who are making very reasonable livings. There's one in my home neighborhood, SmarterApps, I know those guys quite well. They have expanded three times in the last 12 months, moved offices three times, and all they do is build BlackBerry applications. They've been around for18 months. You go to their offices, and they've got nice modern Macs in there. They support nine people by selling these things. They've never taken any venture financing. They're all bootstrapped and self-supporting, and they do it with BlackBerry apps. That's just one example, and there are many, many like them. 

FierceDeveloper: You've said in the past, nobody is telling our story. What is the story RIM has to tell?

Saunders: The story I've been focused on telling is the kind of business that you as an app developer can build on the BlackBerry platform. Ink that that's the story that has to get told because, as you know, apps are the precursor to sales these days. They pull the sales of devices through the channel. And in markets where we're not doing well with apps, and where there's a perception that BlackBerry users don't use apps or that it's not a great platform apps, then you start to see market share erode. So we need to get in there and aggressively tell developers, "Hey, there's an opportunity here. You can make a living for this." Every time somebody in [Silicon] Valley decides that they're not going to support BlackBerry anymore--and the only reason that I can think that makes any sense is, it doesn't, it's all heresy, right?--it makes me cringe.

FierceDeveloper:  Well, to that end, it was reported that Netflix said last week, we don't think we're going to support an app for Playbook or for BlackBerry.

Saunders: It was a Netflix Twitter representative. I believe the words that were used were, "We don't have any plans." That doesn't mean we're not in conversation with them and with all kinds of other vendors, working to get them to target our platform.

FierceDeveloper:  Does that kind of thing worry you at all?

Saunders: Well sure it does. That's the reason why I took this job. [Laughs] It's because I'm an old-school platform warrior from the 1990s, and I understand that apps are the leading indicator of success for a platform. I looked at what was going on with RIM and I said, "We've go to fix this."

FierceDeveloper: I'm sure you can't go into too many details, but from a high-level app and user experience standpoint, what kind of experience does RIM need or is going to deliver with BlackBerry 10 that is qualitatively different from what BlackBerry users have experienced before? And what needs to remain the same?

Saunders: Let me talk about it from the perspective of what our strengths are today. Nobody will argue that BlackBerry devices aren't great communications devices. And in fact, speaking personally or anecdotally again, for the three years before I took this job I was using one of our competitor's products, and I'm sure you can guess who: Touchscreen devices. What I found over time was that my mobile email became shorter, more terse. I changed the way that I used the device because it was that much more difficult to use it as a communication device. Fast forward to August of this past year, I joined RIM and get handed a Bold 9900, which has the best keyboard I've ever used on any mobile device, and productivity has gone through the roof.

So I think when you think about the core values of RIM, they are devices for people who are on the go and need to do things. They're not necessarily media consumption devices. They are for doers, not viewers. You know, that's what the brand folks inside the company talk about. And I think there is an awful lot of truth to that particular statement. So if you think about what we need to do, the bring your device phenomenon is causing consumers to bring devices that are essentially media consumption devices into the organization, and they're displacing our devices. And so I think that from an app perspective, and next-generation BlackBerry perspective, we have to build the killer device that's appealing to consumers and at the same time remain true to the core communications heritage that BlackBerry is all about.