I recently caught up with a friend who is an independent app developer. He's capable of developing for other mobile platforms, but historically he's focused on BlackBerry app development and has been quite prolific at it over the years. There is a good chance you have downloaded one or more of his apps.
It didn't take long for me to ask my friend —who's name I'm going to leave anonymous for this post — how his app sales have been going lately. His reply? "Pretty terrible."
It wasn't a totally surprising thing for me to hear. It's well documented where BlackBerry 10 phone sales are at, and for the most part those buying BlackBerry OS phones these days are less the app buying type (lots of corporate issued BBOS phones happening in those numbers, or it's low cost handsets and the owners are looking for free apps vs. paid ones). In other words, a lot of the app-hungry BB10 phone owners have already bought their apps, and with their appetite mainly satiated with what's available and relatively small numbers of new BB10 owners stepping up to fill their app plate, app sales are flat-lining, and not at a high daily number.
Though not surprising to hear, it still sucked for me to hear this from him. This is a guy who's been fiercely loyal as a developer to BlackBerry and taken risks and made a very conscious effort to throw a lot of time and effort at BlackBerry app development. And he builds good apps. He's the kind of guy I ideally would want to see not only surviving, but absolutely thriving given his commitment to BlackBerry.
The way I look at, a healthy app store needs to strike a happy balance between big name apps and independently-developed apps, as well as a good mix of both free and premium (paid) apps.
When it comes to a lot of the big name apps — especially those that also live in an offline world — the company/developers can justify platform ecosystem support as an investment in serving their existing users. To use a recently-discussed example, while Air Canada took pride in building a BlackBerry 10 app to support their customers who use BB10 phones, Canada's other big airline WestJet has to date failed to see how there would be an ROI in supporting BlackBerry 10. In this situation, it's not about WestJet gaining new customers by building a BlackBerry 10 app — it's about them not pissing off existing customers because they don't have one. If they viewed building their BB10 app as an investment in their existing customer base (which they should), they'd realize the value and get it done.
For the independent app developer, it's a little bit different story. They're more often building a customer base for their apps from the ground up. They likely won't look at it as an investment in an existing customer base, but rather as a startup project. There's potentially huge upside if you get it right, but there's also the risk you won't make back the time and money you invested in the initiative.
And that's where my friend is now at in contemplating what to do next. As he told me, "Loyalty doesn't feed my family... I need to see incentives from BlackBerry. I need to make more money." He went on to say that as a developer, "at this point it's not about BlackBerry giving me access to more APIs or a better SDK, but simply about being able to make more money developing for BlackBerry. The tools are good enough. It doesn't matter how much more they improve them if I can't make enough money to justify building the apps to begin with."
Both not individuals who like to dwell on the problem, we quickly started focusing on potential solutions, brainstorming what BlackBerry could do to help the independent developers out there continue to develop new apps and also (hopefully) make more money off the apps they already have in BlackBerry World.
The solutions that came to our minds:
1. BlackBerry needs to sell more phones! A no brainer of course, but when apps that were selling well are no longer selling as well, part of that is due to a lack of new phone owners coming into the mix. The onus here is on BlackBerry to keep delivering the goods (aka, hot new phones that drive consumer demand!).
2. Give the 30% cut BlackBerry is currently taking off app sales back to developers This was a suggestion that I put out there, which my developer friend immediately loved. If he could make 30% more than he was making off his current app sales, that would help him considerably given his current monthly revenue. We tried to guess how much BlackBerry is currently bringing in from this 30% right now in total, but given that "lack of apps" is still the number one reason I hear and often see cited for someone not wanting to buy a BlackBerry 10 phone, it seems that maybe until things turn around this is a 30% BlackBerry needs to eat, for the sake of retaining (and hopefully attracting) developers.
3. Use this 30% incentive to see existing apps updated or for apps to be native It could be a great incentive for developers to build native apps if they knew that no cut would be taken by BlackBerry for those app sales. We know BlackBerry 10 users much prefer native apps to Android ports. Providing this type of incentive to developers who build native could go a long way to seeing more native apps in BlackBerry World.
Clearly, there a LOT of moving parts in this type of discussion, and I'm not suggesting that we have the answers fully formed here. However, we both thought that posting this could be a good thing, as it could help as catalyst for more meaningful discussion. My friend suggested that if we post this, you'll see a lot of other BlackBerry app developers in agreement that BlackBerry needs to do something for developers. They either need to up their incentives, or do something or what remains of the BlackBerry app developer community will begin to erode.
I'll leave it that for now. Mull this over. Give it some thought. If you're a BlackBerry app developer, I'd love to hear your reactions in the comments. How are your BlackBerry World sales going right now? Is my friend the norm, or an exception? And if anybody has any brilliant suggestions of what BlackBerry can and should be doing to help all the independent app developers out there, be sure to to sound off in the comments as well.
Also on a side note, during our conversation we both remembered BlackBerry's 10k Developer Guarantee Program... and we both wondered if anybody ever was paid out from that program?! If you were approved as part of the program, be sure to let me know in the comments how it panned out for you. Did you make enough that you didn't need a check? Or did you not make the cut and get paid your guarantee from BlackBerry?