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BlackBerry's embrace of Android porting is a risky move for the long-term health of BlackBerry 10

Editorial by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday March 06, 2013.

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BlackBerry faced a serious problem when it launched the BlackBerry Z10. Delays and falling prestige diminished the incentive to develop apps for the all-new BlackBerry 10. With such little enthusiasm, how could the company formerly known as RIM convince developers to populate its store if they didn't believe BlackBerry 10 would be successful? How could RIM convince app-conscious consumers to buy a phone if they didn't believe developers would make its app store competitive with iPhone or Android options?

The answer to this chicken or egg situation came with the rampant promotion of porting Android apps to BlackBerry 10. BlackBerry aggressively courted developers with competitions, cash prizes, and promotions about how easy it is to port Android apps to BB10. Those efforts contributed to more than 70,000 apps being added to BlackBerry World, saving BlackBerry from the embarrassment of a fresh new phone with no apps. It also created a problem for BlackBerry going forward.

BlackBerry 10 is on a steady diet of Android conversions. After reviews started pouring in for the BlackBerry Z10, it became clear that a great number of its available apps were ported from Android. Though the company proudly touted strong support from several big names, several high-profile targets have opted to not build native apps for BlackBerry. Instagram and Netflix, two immensely popular apps on other platforms, aren't even putting in the time to work on a port. That has led to BB10 fans unofficially converting the Instagram and Netflix Android apps to work on the BlackBerry Z10, which isn't the most ideal way of accessing either service.

Users manually porting their favorite apps highlights how, despite valiant efforts to prevent this very thing from happening, BlackBerry is struggling to get high profile apps to build specifically for BB10. That's a problem because native apps are preferable to ported ones. Native apps minimize strange behavior like showing Android UI elements in pop-ups, and they tend to perform faster and smoother because they aren't designed to run apps for software that's already incredibly old (BB10 ports use Android 2.3, but BlackBerry plans to upgrade to Android 4.1 later this year). It's acceptable in some cases for an app to simply repackage its contents to fit another OS, but it's almost always better to use an app built with that OS in mind.

BlackBerry's open courting of porting apps may harm the ecosystem long-term. Promoting app porting was a stopgap measure necessary to quickly get developers on its side, but native apps will determine how well BlackBerry does in the app department. But why invest the time, money, and expertise into building for yet another platform when you can just re-wrap existing apps in a package that's compatible with a Z10? The app won't be great, but it will be passable. That's the reason a major company like Skype isn't developing a real BB10 app, it's just going to port an Android app built for a version of Android released two years ago. Now might be a good time to focus less on trumpeting the ease of converting apps and screaming from the mountain top that its Cascades SDK is the best way to build a BlackBerry app.

The sad part is that getting companies on board for native apps is much harder than it seems. How will BlackBerry manage to get Instagram and Netflix on board when those companies don't even want to port their already popular Android apps to BB10? Windows Phone 8 has also faced criticism for its app options, but at least Microsoft courted developers to build for Windows Phone rather than host several port-a-thons. There are still some embarrassing gaps in terms of app options, but at least Windows Phone users know that apps in the Phone Store are made for their HTC 8X or Nokia Lumia 920. That strategy has its growing pains, but it leads to more high-quality apps.

BlackBerry will try to increase its profile when it hosts a developer conference in Orlando in May. In a brutal case of bad timing, the company will play second fiddle to Android, which will be a major point of interest at the Google I/O conference taking place in San Francisco at the same time. One can't help but wonder if BlackBerry might have people standing outside Moscone West asking attendees to go the extra step and convert their Android apps to BB10. BlackBerry would be better served trying to convince developers to go the extra mile and make native apps instead, but what would it take to successfully pitch that proposition?

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About the author

Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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