Research In Motion Ltd is using this year's BlackBerry World to highlight the crucial role that apps developers will play in determining whether its next-generation smartphones have any chance of reversing the company's precipitous decline.
At its annual showcase on Tuesday, RIM came a step closer to perhaps the most crucial launch in its history by formally offering developers software tools to create applications for the new BlackBerry 10 platform, due out later this year. It also handed out thousands of prototype devices to developers to test their apps.
Put simply, the company knows consumers won't buy its new phones or tablets unless developers get excited about the new platform and create a wealth of flashy apps to operate on it.
A dearth of apps for the legacy BlackBerry is one of the big reasons RIM has suffered huge market-share losses to Apple Inc and Google Inc's Android in recent years.
To regain its stride, RIM is essentially starting from scratch. Few of the apps available for its existing smartphones will work on the new platform, and the legacy BlackBerry won't be able to run apps created for the new platform.
Based on an operating system called QNX that's compatible with numerous open-source coding languages, BlackBerry 10 is a major break with RIM's legacy operating software, a proprietary system that turned off developers.
In his keynote address on Tuesday, RIM's new chief executive demonstrated aspects of the new platform that set it apart from its predecessor. In contrast to the legacy BlackBerry, the new devices navigate with fewer keystrokes, relying more on swipe gestures and word suggestions.
"We wanted a user paradigm that is easy and fast," Heins said, showing how information from documents, emails, calendars, and address books could slide in and out from the screen's edges. "It's all about making things flow."
"We are making you really agile and nimble on the BlackBerry," he said. "We're doing it this way because your time is even more precious when you're mobile."
John Jackson, an analyst at CCS Insight, said that Heins' address was low key but effective in presenting RIM's vision at the Orlando, Florida, conference.
"Mr Heins delivered a decent articulation of what and who RIM stood for while providing a sufficiently tantalizing glimpse of some unique BlackBerry 10 features to keep things interesting," Jackson said. "This should be enough to at least give the naysayers pause, if only temporarily."
Investors may not have been entirely convinced, however, as RIM's stock dropped 4.6 percent to C$13.47 in Toronto. The shares have fallen about 70 percent over the past 12 months as the company lost more ground to its competitors.Prototype device for testing
The prototype device that RIM handed out has no physical keyboard, unlike most BlackBerry models. Known as Alpha Dev, it looks like a smaller version of RIM's PlayBook tablet, complete with a touch-sensitive frame that a user can swipe to call up a menu.
While RIM says the hardware it eventually launches will bear little resemblance to the prototype, apps built for the Alpha Dev's 4.2 inch screen will allow for a "very seamless transition" to BlackBerry 10 devices, said Christopher Smith, vice-president for application platform and tools.
As for the software toolkits, they are designed to simplify the task for app developers and independent content producers.
One of them is Cascades - a toolkit from The Astonishing Tribe, a Swedish user interface company RIM bought in 2010. It helps create apps that are rich in graphics.
Developers can simply select an effect with a touch and have it written directly into their program.
RIM said it would add more tools in coming months.
Apps created with any of the BlackBerry 10 tools will run on the company's poor-selling PlayBook once the tablet is upgraded to the new platform, but won't on RIM's older smartphones.Quicker development process
RIM said it was already working with some partners to ensure content and apps are available when the devices are launched.
Among them are Endomondo, which specializes in apps to promote ,fitness; PixelMags, an mobile magazine newsstand; Poynt, a local search engine; and Wikitude, whose apps superimpose information over camera images.
Gameloft is working to bring 11 games to the new platform, including a puzzle game called "Shark Dash" and a more complex game called "N.O.V.A 3: Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance."
"RIM has got it right with the BlackBerry 10 platform," said Adam Linford from Truphone, which offers local calling and data rates while its customers are roaming. "The platform's support for open-source components flattens the learning curve, enabling us to build a new application quickly and cost effectively."
Impressing developers is crucial for RIM, which has expanded beyond its traditional strength in providing mobile email to office workers, only to struggle against the more consumer-friendly iPhone from Apple and the slew of devices that make use of the Android platform.
Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM has around 15,000 apps for its PlayBook tablet and 70,000 apps for its smartphones or the tablet, compared with 200,000 iPad apps, and half a million for the iPhone.
A recent survey from Appcelerator and IDC showed less than 16 percent of developers were "very interested" in creating programs for RIM, compared with 90 percent for Apple and 80 percent for Android.
Earlier on Tuesday, research firm IDC said that RIM's share of the global smartphone market had slipped to 6.7 percent in the first quarter, from 13.6 percent a year earlier.