Sitting Down With Jeff McDowell, Research In Motion's VP of Global Alliances
On the morning of the final day of the BlackBerry Developer Conference, I had the opportunity and privilege to sit down with RIM's VP of Global Alliances Jeff McDowell to talk about the newly-announced BlackBerry Application Center and BlackBerry Application Storefront (keep in mind the "Application Storefront" will likely launch under a different name, but we'll keep referring to it as such for now). It was at the keynote session the morning prior where Jeff and Mike Lazaridis brought word of these endeavors from RIM, so I was excited to learn more about these plans straight from the source.
Coming out of the BlackBerry Developer Conference, one might think that the App Center/App Store announcement was the biggest news, but after speaking with Jeff and attending the three day conference, it became apparent to me this first-ever DevCon will go down as monumental in RIM's history books for something very different - something that never went out in a press release via Marketwire. The BlackBerry Developer Conference marks a new attitude for RIM, and those who attended DevCon in person saw it and felt it. The enterprise, security-focused roots are still there, but DevCon proved that RIM is also opening up and becoming a more sociable company. This is HUGE.
Keep reading after the jump for a whole lot of BlackBerry Goodness you won't find anywhere else.
BlackBerry Application Center and BlackBerry Application Storefront
Rewind to October 6th and I dropped word here on CrackBerry.com of the coming of RIM's BlackBerry Application Center. Our details were limited, but it looked to be that an app store of sorts was in the works and that RIM was taking a very different approach from the Apple-run app store iPhone users are accustomed to - instead of being manufacturer controlled, it would be the carrier who took ownership of the BlackBerry Application Center.
But it turns out we knew only half of the story, for at DevCon it was announced that RIM would be ushering in two app store-like initiatives: the above-mentioned BlackBerry Application Center and also an application storefront for BlackBerry apps. While some of the details have been very clear, such as 80% of revenue going back to the developer for sales via the App Storefront (the other 20% going to Paypal/RIM for infrastructure and admin), other details have been less cut and dried... like whether or not the App Storefront would be on the web, on device, or both. Speaking with Jeff, it became apparent that RIM has not yet finalized every detail associated with these initiatives, though things are progressing quickly toward the targeted March 2009 launch.
BlackBerry Application Center
The premise behind the BlackBerry Application Center is to tidy up what carriers are already doing and to expand upon it. Buy a new BlackBerry and notice some pre-loaded 3rd party apps whose icons don't quite match those of the native OS? Ever wake up in the morning and notice a new shortcut on your device (Facebook, Yellowpages, etc.)? That's the carrier pre-loading or pushing out applications onto your BlackBerry.
The aim of the BlackBerry Application Center is to "clean up the ribbon" and enable users to choose which applications they want to have active on the device, rather than having them forced upon the user. Furthermore, via the App Center the carrier will be able to increase the portfolio of applications to be offered, which could include both free and paid applications. Don't think hundreds or thousands of applications here; rather, a carrier will likely choose to offer the top 10, 20 or 30 (exact number not known and will vary) BlackBerry applications it thinks users will be most interested in. Any purchased items would be billed out through the carrier and added to the customer's monthly bill.
Looking back at our initial BlackBerry Application Center post we can summarize the main features:
BlackBerry Application Center features:
A BIG point Jeff clarified was the confusion surrounding which devices will get the Application Center, as previously reported information (like the first bullet point posted above) gave the impression that maybe the Application Center will only be coming to the BlackBerry Storm, which is not the case. The BlackBerry Application Center will first appear on OS 4.7 (which is debuting on the Storm), but will be available on every newer OS from there on out. So when your existing BlackBerry Curve or Pearl or Bold gets a big OS update (to 4.8 or 4.9 or 5.0 or whatever it ultimately gets released as), it will at that time feature the Application Center.
BlackBerry Application Storefront
While the BlackBerry Application Center is a relatively straight forward endeavor that is simply improving upon something that's already being done, the BlackBerry Application Storefront is a more direct response to the iPhone's App Store, though it's clear to me that RIM had at least been giving this notion some thought even prior to the iPhone App Store's ultimate launch. While we talked about the BlackBerry Application Storefront it was evident Jeff couldn't get into all of the details just yet (as mentioned above, I think RIM is still deciding on some of the finer points), but we still covered a lot of new ground on this second app-related endeavor:
1. It is a strategic play for RIM. They are not thinking of the App Store as a profit center, rather as a must-have, value-added benefit for BlackBerry users. Jeff also pointed out that part of the necessity behind the BlackBerry Application Storefront is simply addressing currently unmet demands by consumers - when looking at what people search for when visiting the BlackBerry.com website, queries for games, ringtones, themes, and specific app titles are at the top of the most-searched list, yet currently RIM provides little in the way of BlackBerry content for these individuals (that's why sites like CrackBerry.com grow to be as huge as they are!).
2. It will be differentiated. RIM has big plans to make the BlackBerry Application Storefront differentiated from everything else out there. Whereas Jeff views current app stores, that offer reviews, ratings, browse by category or search, etc., to be fairly basic, with the BlackBerry Application Storefront RIM is going to take things to the next level. He wouldn't get into the details (darn it!!), but you can expect to see RIM's app store incorporate features not currently contemplated in any other app store to date. We'll be sure to bring you the details as we learn more!
3. What it will look like. While we have seen some early screenshots of the App Center, we really haven't seen or heard exactly what the App Store will look like and how the user experience will play out. Though I pried for info here, Jeff was careful to not give too much away. My sense / hunch / and the rumor-buzz from DevCon is that the App Store will be present in a couple of ways - both as a website portal and as an on-device client. As mentioned above, the BlackBerry.com website already attracts a ton of people seeking out this content, so it makes sense for RIM to take advantage of this existing demand and make it easy for people to browse for applications from their computer and have them delivered to their BlackBerry smartphone for easy installation - visually I'm picturing it to be sort of similar to our own ShopCrackBerry Software Store. As for an on-device client component of the BlackBerry App Store, it is likely in the works, but this is another area Jeff couldn't elaborate on at the time. It makes sense to me that this is one of the details RIM still needs to work out with all of its carrier partners. With the BlackBerry Application Center shipping native on the device, it would be somewhat redundant to also ship the BlackBerry Application Storefront native. My guess (seriously, this is a pure guess), is that while RIM would love to have the App Store software ship on every smartphone it sells, that to keep everyone happy the client may be something you need to download and install. I don't think this would be a huge issue, especially considering the native browser homepage defaults to mobile.blackberry.com, where I'm sure the App Storefront client would be only a few clicks (or taps on the Storm) away. I'm sure we'll learn a lot more about this as March approaches. I told Jeff it definitely sounds like good competition for our Software Store and Mobile App Store (crackberryappstore.com), but teased him that with over 4.5 million visits and 20 million page views a month and growing daily they'd better watch out for CrackBerry Nation... we're closing in on BlackBerry Nation one addict at a time! Seriously, aren't we all BlackBerry Addicts?! :-)
4. Other Details. As previously mentioned, 80% of app revenue will go to the developer, with the other 20% covering the cost of running the App Store. RIM is working with Paypal on the project to provide an easy and secure means for conducting transactions (you can definitely expect BlackBerry Wallet integration as well!). RIM will soon be publishing their "manifesto" which will very clearly outline the process and rules to developers for being listed in the BlackBerry Application Storefront. My impression from Jeff is that RIM will be very open as to what makes it into the store, with only a few necessary exceptions: adult content will not be allowed; there will be checks in place to make sure no malware makes it in; and apps that are completely detrimental to the BlackBerry experience (such as a flashlight app that kills your battery by turning the camera flash on) may be vetted out. Again, all things will be made clear in the soon-to-be released manifesto. To be alerted of BlackBerry Application Storefront updates from RIM, you can visit http://www.blackberry.com/storefrontinfo.
All in all, between the BlackBerry Application Center and BlackBerry Application Storefront there is a lot for both BlackBerry developers and consumers to be excited about!
PS. And in case you were wondering what 3rd party apps reside on Jeff's BlackBerry, his top four must-haves are: GreenFinder (he's a golf nut), WSJ, Unify4Life and Telenav. Other frequently used apps on Jeff uses include The Weather Network app, ESPN, Google Maps, Facebook, PageOnce and Viigo, and Jeff is always swapping and trying new apps out.
RIM's New Corporate Attitude - OPENLY FRIENDLY!!
Following our discussion of the App Center/Store, our conversation turned toward the Developer Conference and how great the event was for me personally. I've been around the world of BlackBerry for a shorter period of time than most in the business (CrackBerry.com only launched in February, 2007), but it didn't take me long to realize that RIM for the most part is a pretty conservative, somewhat closed-off company. It's not that RIM was an unfriendly company; rather, the sociable nature of company (and the people that make up the company) wasn't something that was permitted to shine through to the public on a regular basis. There's good reason for this too... combine RIM's focus on enterprise and security (which by definition basically means ‘closed') with some of their past challenges - a big legal fight (NTP), unwanted leaks, etc. and it's no wonder RIM chose that path.
But being closed, and dare I say "anti-social" doesn't play well with the consumer world, but that is exactly where RIM is putting a ton of focus these stays. And while RIM has made great strides in penetrating the consumer smartphone world since the sale of the first BlackBerry Pearl, the public the image the company portrays has taken a lot longer to reflect this shift. The past few months have brought some change forward, such as mainstream advertising (BlackBerry TV commercials), but a company is made up of people and it's at conferences like DevCon where you can really observe a company's culture.
Talk about a big change in attitude from RIM. At the BlackBerry Developer Conference, RIM embraced us bloggers - I was actually a speaker on a panel discussion along with Doug from BBCool and Hayden from PinStack. Crazy. Furthermore, I even got to interview Jeff for this article!! I made note in a DevCon day-end recap that RIM employees were actually blogging the event (I couldn't help but wonder if hell froze over when I discovered that... it was kind of cool in California at the time!), and Jeff let me know that we can expect to see a lot more of this from RIM in the months ahead. While there won't be any formal announcement, expect to see blogs actually start popping up on the BlackBerry.com website - written by employees covering different products and areas of the company and that we'll see more faces and hear more voices from RIM on a regular basis other than just Mike or Jim on stage or on quarterly conference calls.
Embracing the blogosphere is huge, and it's awesome to see that even RIM's founder and Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis is onboard. Think back to October 8th when the BlackBerry Storm was announced. Not only did the usual big, traditional media publications release embargoed reviews, but so did Engadget, Gizmodo and Phonescoop. When Mike was in New York on October 1st visiting the usual tech media outlets, he decided to also visit some of the non-traditional media guys (bloggers) as well. If only I lived in New York (mental note, move to New York), maybe Mike would have dropped by the CrackBerry office that day too. I'm hoping Mike enjoyed that experience - I'll be one happy-for-life CrackBerry Addict the day Mike Lazaridis shows up at my office with a not-officially-announced BlackBerry.
Until Next Time...
Cool info huh? That's what happens when a VP from RIM takes the time to sit down with a blogger and chat BlackBerry. My personal thanks go out to Jeff McDowell for taking the time out of his crazy schedule to meet with me and to RIM for letting it happen. I was already your biggest fan because of the smartphones you manufacture, but now I have another reason... your people!!