The past few years in the smartphone world have been anything but boring. With popularity and hype exploding for most mobile platforms, it has become the flagship industry for anything having to do with technology. From simple platforms, complex “ecosystems” have spawned, where devices are now highly dependent on proprietary services and other proprietary devices, making them more valuable together than the sum of individual devices. Consumers are now buying smartphones primarily based on the increasingly exclusive services you get, such as apps.
Now that the obvious is out of the way, many analysts and experts now see the success of each platform as being highly dependent on the quality and comprehensiveness of their respective ecosystems. I would agree. All of a sudden, it has become all about these ecosystems. After all, the iPhone is nothing special without its App Store.
With all the success of the Android and iOS platforms through their extensive app selections, it’s easy to think that apps are what make the ecosystem. But I’d argue that it’s not that simple. If that were the case, RIM would be out of business already. But they’re not. The number of BlackBerry subscriber base in the United States has bottomed out about now and is still in the millions. For all the harping about apps, BlackBerry smartphone sales are doing well enough without angry birds.
The fact is that there was a BlackBerry ecosystem before any iPhone or Android phone existed. It just wasn’t obvious at the time. Despite the app situation, BlackBerrys also have BBM groups, a powerful set of email, calendar, and contacts apps, BBM music, smartphone-to-tablet bridging, and much more. This is the BlackBerry ecosystem, and it’s much more social than any other.
BBM is not just a messaging solution. It’s a social hub and arguably the most powerful mobile app ever created. Whether it’s a video, picture, email, Twitter message, voice note, simple text message, contact information, document, location, Foursquare check-in, calendar appointment, Facebook status, sports scores, meeting, song, or video game score, it all can be shared through BBM. It is this integration that defines the BlackBerry ecosystem. The point is that despite having fewer apps than the ecosystems of Android and iOS, the BlackBerry ecosystem is not inferior, but different.
In my opinion, apps (in the traditional sense) are not the be-all end-all solution to a smartphone’s ecosystem, but merely a stop-gap to a better solution. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, your smartphone either needs to be useful or entertaining (or both). Requiring the fewest distinct apps to accomplish these functions is the most elegant solution, but unfortunately the hardest one to achieve.
Just take a look at any App Store, Marketplace or App World. Now notice how many individual apps actually accomplish very little? An app to make a fart sound. Take a simple screenshot. Generate picture effects. It all sounds a little pre-school. The way the BlackBerry platform has been able to maintain its user base is through the power of BBM, which reduces the need to use social apps as much. For example, by combining music discovery, music playback, music purchasing, and deep social interaction, BBM music was created. By combining multiple email accounts with multiple social networks synced to multiple calendars all in one place, RIM is trying to “de-app” the smartphone experience and introduce something more efficient.
This isn’t to say that third-party development has its days numbered. Far from it. Instead of investing resources into stand-alone apps, developers may begin to shift to creating extensions and service plug-ins that improve the ecosystem without cluttering it up with inefficient icons with redundant functions. The shift would have to start from a flexible operating system and the development of the required libraries to support the extensions, which is no small undertaking.
This is something RIM has been doing by themselves for a long time with limited success. You see app functions in contextual menus, BBM-connected apps, their “super apps”, and through their acquisitions in cross-platforms solutions such as NewBay. But there simply isn’t the time, talent and resources needed to provide all third-party app functionality by a single company. Perhaps by combining the third-party development model with a more vertically integrated ecosystem, you can imagine that developers would save time and the operating system would be much more mature and unified.
For example, if you want to make a fast car, you can either build a new car from scratch, or add a few parts on your existing car. Simply adding on the right parts is usually the cheaper and faster way to get it done. Building a completely new car is simply a waste of resources in most cases. Plus, building a complete car requires knowledge of each and every part involved.
I believe that all smartphone ecosystems are naturally evolving in this way as operating systems mature and the app count becomes less and less relevant. Nobody will want to browse through hundreds of apps just to take a certain kind of picture, or use a certain calendar. This kind of thinking runs parallel to RIM’s philosophy of efficiency and power, and I believe it is still alive and well. From what we’ve seen with the PlayBook OS 2.0 update, I am beginning to think RIM is pushing to “leapfrog” the era of traditional apps with the new BlackBerry 10 platform. I hope they pull it off.
It is this philosophy that pulls me towards the BlackBerry ecosystem despite all the criticism in the app offerings. For me, efficiency in managing information is above all else. An integrated, comprehensive, and socially-charged solution? There is simply no app for that.