Congrats RIM, but the iPhone is the more potent weapon in the smartphone wars

Scaling / August 20, 2009 / Alykhan Jetha

Citing RIM’s number one rank in Fortune’s recent fastest growing tech shootout, I was once again asked whether we would develop mobile apps for the BlackBerry.

First, let me say that we desperately need viable competition in this space, but so far there are no real contenders out there. RIM’s current success is temporary at best. And don’t get me wrong, as a Canadian, I want RIM to succeed.

I’m pretty melancholic about these smartphone wars because RIM is in similar circumstances with the other smartphone players. From a developer perspective, I don’t think they get it. Let me explain.

The current incarnations of Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Palm’s WebOS software stacks simply don’t cut it. And quite honestly, I don’t think they can catch up. Apple is smarter now – they are not going to make the same mistake like they did with the Mac.

With exception of the Pre (so far), of these platforms have different targets and form factors. Different carriers have different versions of the OS with various bits of functionality turned off. It’s a mess. As a developer, I would have to target to the lowest common denominator – and folks, that lowest common denominator is pretty low. With the iPhone SDK, I don’t have that problem and can therefore make a better application. I can focus on making good software, as opposed to focusing on limitations. My only problem is that I have to worry about the App Store approval process (which I hope will get better in time). It’s a smaller worry than having to deal with all those devices, carriers, versions etc…

The proof of this is the sheer number of applications in Apple’s App Store vs. the other folks. BlackBerries and WinMo devices have been around for a long time and their developer kits have also been around for a long time – much longer than the iPhone SDK. Why do they have so few apps (around 2500 at best) vs. some 68000+ for the iPhone? Just think about that. It’s not just the App Store.

Since RIM and Palm make their own hardware and software, there is a chance that the lowest common denominator will be higher than it is for Windows Mobile, Symbian or Android. But when you think of this, it highlights another fundamental problem. These guys were caught flat footed and are playing catchup.

When you play catch up, you flail. Look no further than RIM’s Storm and if recent rumors are true, Microsoft’s dual mobile OS strategy. You are trying to follow a fast moving speed boat (and compared to others, Apple is moving fast). You simply can’t catch your breath in the wake. You are slowly going to get pulverized. Body parts will fall. You might hang on to save face, but that’s about it.

Combine this with the lowest common denominator problem and you see why it’s not looking very good for these folks in the long run. Software developers enjoy working on sophisticated software stacks and they hate dumbing down their products to satisfy the lowest common denominator.

The iPhone’s software stack (Core OS, Runtime, Graphics etc…) is far, far ahead of the rest of the pack. And knowing the software folks at Apple, it’s only going to get better.

So getting back to the initial question. Would we develop apps for the BlackBerry? The polite, Canadian answer would be that it’s too much of a distraction. The core business answer is more blunt: If you’re involved in a death-match between two warring sides, you go with the winner (even if some parts are a bit flawed).

For the sake of competition, I sincerely hope that RIM has some *good* tricks up its sleeve. Otherwise it’s only a matter of time…

Until next time…

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