One of the big headline figures that BlackBerry, the company formerly known as Research In Motion (NASDAQ: BBRY ) , was touting yesterday when it launched its new BlackBerry 10 platform was that it was launching with a whopping 70,000 apps ready to go. The company boasts that this figure is more than any other first generation mobile operating system at launch.
That is a lot of apps to have ready at launch, but unfortunately the company took a sloppy shortcut to get there.
A platform within a platform
Years ago when BlackBerry launched its PlayBook tablet, the company also said that the platform would be compatible with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) Android apps. That would allow the device to piggyback on Android's proliferation, as Android developers could port their existing code to the BlackBerry platform with minimal efforts. The company has spent the better part of a year trying to win Android developers over by saying BlackBerry App World generates 40% more revenue than the Android Market (now known as Google Play).
This courting of Android developers has been a major contributing factor to BlackBerry achieving that 70,000 figure, as BlackBerry VP of global alliances and business development Martyn Mallick confirmed yesterday that 40% of these apps are "wrapped" Android apps. That includes some of the high-profile apps, including Microsoft's Skype.
In doing so, BlackBerry is taking a concerted risk with its ecosystem strategy. The smartphone market has evolved into an ecosystem war where app quality and quantity are critically important to consumers facing a purchase decision. On one hand, BlackBerry can tout an impressive headline figure at launch in order to try and win over buyers. On the other hand, there are performance issues with these ported Android apps.
BlackBerry 10 has an integrated Android emulator built in to the operating system in order to run these Android apps. The version of Android that's being used is Gingerbread 2.3, originally released over two years ago in December 2010. In fairness, nearly half of all Android devices still run Gingerbread even today. This means that opening an Android app takes users into an emulated Android environment that's disconnected from the core BlackBerry 10 interface and some of its genuinely innovative interface elements. For example, The Verge's Josh Topolsky said Android apps "performed abysmally" on the Z10.
Is it worth it?
What BlackBerry will ultimately need in the longer-term is to convince developers to create native apps for the platform with better performance. Using Android as a stepping stone may end up paying off if the company can use it to garner enough sales to persuade developers that it's worth their time.
It's unlikely that Google will back the platform, however, which may sting since it has a massive user base for its services, many of which don't use Android. The search giant has already specifically said that it has no plans on making native apps for Windows Phone, which is gunning for the No. 3 spot, since that platform's user base is so small and it may not be worth the investment.
Strategy Analytics pegged BlackBerry's global smartphone market share at 3.4% in the fourth quarter, making it unlikely that Google will bring some native apps to BlackBerry 10 anytime soon.
Having 70,000 at the launch of a first-generation platform would be more impressive if BlackBerry wasn't forced to take such a sloppy shortcut. It also doesn't help that the first-generation competing platforms launched upwards of five years ago.
Eventually, it seems obvious that BlackBerry will need to wean itself off piggybacking on Android, because otherwise the platform itself will become little more than a wrapper for Android, and no one wants to buy that. A consumer that's interested in Android apps should just go buy an Android phone in the first place.
But at that point, we're talking about another important and needed transition within the platform toward native apps, just as the company is in the midst of transitioning to this new platform. BlackBerry is looking to pull off a transition within a transition.
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