BlackBerry 10's big roadblock: otherwise solid phone lacks crucial apps


Britain BlackBerry

It’s a big week for BlackBerry fans as the new Z10 finally arrives in Canada on Tuesday (it launched in the U.K. last week and is coming to the U.S. next month). Overall, I quite like the new phone. I’ve been using it for much of the past week and have become fond of some of its features, notably the swipe-heavy Flow interface. I’ve also warmed up a bit to the predictive text typing, although I’m still finding it slows me down half the time.

One thing I’m not liking, however, is BlackBerry’s lack of apps. I detailed the 29 apps I use regularly in my in-depth review; fewer than a third of them are available for the Z10. I consider some, such as 680 News (for traffic) and Cineplex for buying movie tickets—not to mention Google Maps—to be mission critical. BlackBerry’s selection is sure to improve over time, but by not having them now, I wouldn’t consider switching yet. Many users will be in the same boat.

Both BlackBerry and Microsoft are preaching quality apps over quantity. As the argument goes, Android and Apple may have 600,000 apps each to choose from, but do those numbers really mean anything when they respectively count dozens of useless fart apps?

Some studies have borne the argument out. Nielsen numbers from last year figure smartphone users downloaded an average of 41 apps, yet stats from the fall from Flurry estimated that only about 13 saw regular usage. In that regard, it’s easy to assume importance of apps has been grossly overstated.

On the other hand, that’s a hasty assumption to make, given that the amount of time people spend using apps surpassed web browsing a long time ago.

Further to that, the belief that overall app numbers don’t matter is outdated. If BlackBerry truly didn’t believe numbers didn’t matter, it wouldn’t have padded its 70,000 launch figure with so many Android ports. The company has admitted that 40 per cent of that figure is made up of Android apps that have simply had a BlackBerry wrapper attached to them. In other words, many of those 70,000 didn’t exactly require much time or effort from developers.

Overall app numbers do matter for three reasons, none of which has to do with farting. For one, Apple’s numbers—and to some extent Android’s—include many, many niche apps. There are hordes of apps dedicated to doctors, pilots, cartographers and cinematographers that the average person may not use, but which people in those specialty professions can’t live without. Those professionals won’t consider switching to Windows or BlackBerry for a second if their mission-critical apps aren’t available.

Secondly, the big app numbers also count a lot of places. Many hotels, shopping malls, museums, airports, even amusement parks now have their own apps and they’re usually exclusively for Apple and Android. These are apps the average person may not use every day, but they do come in handy on the odd occasion, which creates an expectation among users. As in, “Do we need a map of Cedar Point for our trip there this summer? Nope, we can just download the Apple or Android app.”

Thirdly, the overall numbers include a quickly growing catalog of apps for things. As usual, a flood of new gadgets were introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, with almost all of them ultimately ending up connecting to Apple and Android apps. BlackBerry and Windows were virtually invisible by this measure. This also creates an expectation as well as additional lock-in; if people end up controlling their lights, TV and washing machines via a smartphone app, they’ll be less inclined to switch to a different brand if they lose those capabilities.

Android and Apple have thus reached critical mass, where their huge numbers are only going to get bigger. App ecosystem lock-in is going to get worse, which means the mountain that BlackBerry and Microsoft must overcome is getting taller and taller. BlackBerry is smart to allow Android app porting, which will help, but that still adds an extra layer for developers to support and maintain. It’s therefore fair to ask whether it’s too late for BlackBerry and especially Windows to really get in the game.