BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion's (RIMM) chief executive, Jim Balsillie, made waves this week by taking a swipe at Apple (AAPL) with some curious comments at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. To be fair, Apple CEO Steve Jobs struck first, but are Balsillie's comments substantive—or just a knee-jerk reaction?
According to The Telegraph,, Balsillie described RIM's upcoming iPad competitor, the PlayBook, as "three or four times" faster at Web browsing than the iPad. He stressed that the best way to get information onto a mobile device was through the browser:
"There's still a role for apps, but can you use your existing content? Can you use your existing Web assets? Do you need a set of proprietary tools to bring existing assets on to a device, or can you use known tools that you use for creating websites?"
War of Words
This sounds like criticism of the "app-centric" approach that has proven successful for Apple's iOS devices in the past three years. It's also possibly a direct response to Steve Jobs' comments during last month's earnings call, when the outspoken Apple CEO said:
"We've now passed RIM, and I don't see them catching up with us in the foreseeable future. They must move beyond their area of strength and comfort into the unfamiliar territory of trying to become a software platform company. I think it's going to be a challenge for them to create a competition platform and to convince developers to create apps for yet a third software platform after iOS and Android. 300,000 apps on Apple's App Store: RIM has a high mountain to climb."
Not to be outdone, Balsillie snapped back on his blog:
"For those of us who live outside of Apple's distortion field, we know that 7" tablets will actually be a big portion of the market, and we know that Adobe Flash support actually matters to customers who want a real Web experience. We also know that … developers want more options and customers want to fully access the overwhelming majority of Web sites that use Flash. We think many customers are getting tired of being told what to think by Apple."
That last line I find particularly interesting. Let's think back to 2007, when Jobs demonstrated the iPhone to a stunned WWDC. At that time Apple endorsed only a single way of getting new functionality onto the iPhone—via Web apps.
We know how that turned out, don't we? Almost immediately a jailbreaking community sprang into existence as developers—frustrated by the limitations of HTML and mobile Safari—created and distributed their own native applications. In no way was that approved and supported by Apple, nor was it close to the picture Steve Jobs had painted. Steve had told us what to think, and he was roundly ignored.
In mid-2007, Apple was presumably already playing with an SDK for developers to create native apps for the iPhone, but the company didn't know for sure which way things would go. Would customers embrace Web apps, making native apps little more than a curiosity? Or would third-party, native apps become the single most-requested feature from customers in the months following the iPhone's introduction? Apple didn't know, but it was prepared to roll with the punches.
In fact, as we now know, apps are essential in order to build and expand a thriving mobile device OS ecosystem. Don't take my word for it; Apple is keen to brag about the billions of times apps have been downloaded from the iTunes store. That's a far cry from Steve's assertion that websites were more than enough. Jon Gruber noted at WWDC '07 that:
"Telling developers that Web apps are iPhone apps just doesn't fly. Think about it this way: If Web apps … are such a great way to write software for iPhone, then why isn't Apple using this technique for any of [its] own iPhone apps?"
Exploiting Built-in Tech
It's an easy answer: Native apps provide improvements in performance and storage; they work offline; and they are better at remembering where you last left off. Native apps can also exploit the platform's built-in technology, such as the iPhone's camera or Location Services. (Twitter's website, for example, always gets my location wrong, but the official Twitter app, hooking into iOS's Location Services, never fails to figure out where I am.)
Convenience, performance, function, and flexibility, then, make native apps the single best way to move forward. That's been pretty obvious to everyone since 2007, so why would Balsillie say otherwise?
Gruber has a theory:
"My guess is that Balsillie knows this, but he's spinning it this way because RIM is going to release the PlayBook long before its native SDK is going to be ready."
If Gruber's guess is right, surely Balsillie is doing the very thing he accused Apple of doing: telling people what to think, in order to dodge embarrassing questions about the absence of third-party native apps on the PlayBook at launch.
In my opinion, that kind of political maneuvering is slightly disingenuous, coming from a company furiously touting the abilities of a device it has yet to sell. When Apple launched the iPhone, it didn't know for sure if an app store would work. RIM is in a better position today; it doesn't have to guess. It needs only to look at every other major smartphone/tablet platform out there and know that support for third-party apps is essential.
I don't mind criticism of Apple when it's warranted, but Balsillie's comments this week are not what I'd expect from a CEO. At best, they belie a serious lack of understanding of the tablet/mobile device market as it exists today (which can't bode well for RIM shareholders). At worst, his comments demonstrate a kind of desperation to be seen as relevant. And that's a shame, because if the PlayBook really is such a marvellous device, surely it's better to let it speak for itself?
Also from GigaOM:
Why RIM's Future (Unfortunately) Hinges on BlackBerry OS 6 (subscription required)