BlackBerry App World: Muted Applause

Research in Motion's answer to Apple's App Store works well, but its decision to go with PayPal is a real pain for BlackBerry users

Apple (AAPL) envy is a fact of life in the smartphone business these days. And Research In Motion (RIMM) is not immune, even though its BlackBerrys have held their own in the face of the iPhone onslaught. The desire to steal some of that iPhone mojo is a major factor behind RIM's new App World application store. Modeled on the iPhone App Store, it aims to distribute lots of cool new BlackBerry programs. While App World will get RIM partway to its goal, it shows once again that imitating Apple is harder than it looks.

There have long been a lot of third-party applications for BlackBerrys, but until now there was no one-stop shop. Once you have installed App World, you access the online marketplace by clicking on an icon using any BlackBerry model with a trackball or touchscreen, including the Pearl, Curve, Bold, and Storm. The store is nicely designed, with applications sorted by type; there's a decent search feature, and a fair number of the apps are free. But the store's one big flaw becomes apparent the first time you have to pay for something. Instead of building its own payments platform, RIM made the unfortunate decision to rely on PayPal (EBAY).

PayPal is clumsy and intrusive at best, and on the BlackBerry, especially the touchscreen Storm, I found the simple act of entering a password to be a pain. The log-in failed frequently for no apparent reason, forcing me to start over. Compounding PalPal's complexities, each BlackBerry app is likely to ask for two or more security permissions when you install and run it for the first time. This is all in sharp contrast to Apple's App store, an extension of the iTunes Store that uses the same simple account you have set up to purchase music and videos.

BlackBerry's App World boasts several hundred apps at launch and, predictably, they are a mixed bag. Many of the free programs have either been around for a while, such as those for gaining access to Facebook and MySpace (NWS), or they are really just bookmarks for Web pages. I took an immediate liking to a couple, however: a Bloomberg stock and news ticker and a program that turns a Storm into a carpenter's level.

The minimum price for paid programs is $2.99, presumably set a bit high to discourage the proliferation of 99 cents iPhone apps such as those that make rude noises or cause body parts to jiggle on screen. Even with this push into consumer markets, BlackBerry has a certain dignity to maintain.

There are lots of games, though the BlackBerry is nowhere near as good a platform for this as the iPhone. Of the different BlackBerry models, only the Storm has the touch screen and motion sensing that bring games to life. As a result, most of the games, which are priced between $5 and $10, are designed to play with (ugh) a trackball. And these titles generally don't work very well on the Storm.

One of the more interesting categories is turn-by-turn navigation—something iPhone users won't get until summer. Strategies and pricing are all over the place. TeleNav offers the single most expensive app in the store, a $99 navigation system. Networks in Motion offers Gokivo for the Bold for $10, though it plans eventually to convert this to a monthly subscription.

Ultimately, the success of App World —and of RIM's whole consumer push— depends on developers writing great programs. By all reports, programming for the BlackBerry is somewhat harder than for the iPhone, but RIM is sweetening the pie by keeping only 20% of the gross, vs. Apple's 30%.

With Google's (GOOG) Android Marketplace growing and Microsoft (MSFT) planning its own Windows Mobile app store later in the year, applications are clearly the new frontier of smartphone competition.

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