BlackBerry’s App World: Can it ever catch up to Apple, Android?

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Now that most smartphones offer more or less the same features – touchscreen interface, messaging options, web surfing, media playback, camera/camcorder, GPS navigation, Wi-Fi, and so on – deciding which device to invest in might boil down to what software is available for it.

So what separates these digital Swiss Army Knives from one another?

Software.

Downloadable applications, or “apps,” can extend the functionality, personality and longevity of a smartphone, as you can fill up your smartphone with software that matters most to you — be it games, business tools, homework helpers, music-making programs, e-book readers, travel aids, and so on.

When it comes to application stores, Apple’s iPhone is currently king, with more than 250,000 downloads available at the App Store (part of iTunes), followed by Google’s Android Market which is closing in on the 100,000 app milestone.

BlackBerry App World? 10,000.

Ironically, Research in Motion (RIM) still owns the most market share in the U.S., with its line of BlackBerry smartphones – currently at 39.3 percent, compared to 23.8 percent for iPhone and 17 percent for Android.

But the latest numbers show RIM is losing ground to rivals. According to comScore, BlackBerry market share fell 1.8 percentage points from the previous quarter, while Google’s Android gained five percentage points over the same period.

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An app store with considerably fewer offerings than its competition, and generally more expensive, might be only one reason why some might be abandoning their BlackBerry for more appealing alternatives.

“Apple and Google have been eating RIM’s lunch in the mobile app game,” confirms Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ontario. “Beyond its obvious shortfall in apps, BlackBerry App World is nowhere near as intuitive to use as the competition, so it’s harder for users to find what they’re looking for.”

Other reasons why RIM might be losing market share: while the company might’ve been the first with a breakthrough smartphone platform, there are many more players today; competing platforms, such as Android and Windows, work with multiple device makers to create smartphones instead of the same company delivering software and hardware (as with RIM and Apple); and increasingly, businesses are allowing for non-BlackBerry smartphones, as long as they meet the company’s security requirements.

So, what’s the issue?

“When App World launched, the lowest price point was $2.99, compared to free or 99 cents for Apple’s App Store, not to mention there is a lot more content for iOS devices,” says Tim Doherty, research analyst and mobility expert for small and midsized businesses at IDC. “Their prices have dropped since, though, and they’re trying to court more developers – especially with the announcement of the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.”

Levy says it also takes developers longer to code for BlackBerry, so many of them simply stay away. “BlackBerrys have long suffered on the app front because the company admits its development tools aren’t as slick and streamlined as those available for other platforms.”

“The new PlayBook Tablet OS, based on technology created by recently acquired QNX Systems, will address this by making it easier for developers to first create new titles, then bring them to market in a revamped and refreshed online application store,” adds Levy.

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“Although RIM will deny it, this heralds the beginning of the end of the BlackBerry operating system that powers the company’s smartphones,” predicts Levy. “If RIM is going to compete in the app space, it needs one consistent operating system across all its devices — much like Apple has done with its iOS — and a two-OS strategy just won’t cut it.”

Is it the right crowd?

Doherty also suggests the typical BlackBerry user might not place apps as high a priority as other smartphone owners. “RIM’s heritage is in enterprise background, and the app phenomenon has come from consumer side…but this is changing.”

Michele Pelino, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, agrees with Doherty. “Originally, app stores were embraced by consumers, but the reality is business users are going to app stores, too, in order to find tools for productivity and efficiency.”

“Another reason why RIM is behind [in its app offerings] is because they’re in the middle of a balancing act — they don’t want to alienate distribution channels and risk their relationship with service providers who also sell apps — whereas iPhone users can only get apps at the App Store,” adds Pelino.

But apps are “critical,” says Pelino, “so RIM building up their store is important to do.”

Even with the recent BlackBerry App World software update that tweaked the user-interface, Levy believes the store needs a “complete rethink” to make it easier for users to find relevant software: “As it is, even the most basic search amounts to a needle in a haystack type of affair, and it often ends with the user leaving empty-handed — contrast this with Apple’s and Google’s online stores, which make it easy to find new and existing titles alike.”

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