Rise and Fall of BlackBerry 10 : A Developer’s Perspective
Here's a first hand account of how the BlackBerry 10 Developer Community Evolved
Today when we talk about a Mobile OS, it’s just Android and iOS. In the past couple of years we’ve seen many new systems coming in, but failing to make a dent in the market. Same has been the case with BlackBerry 10. Launched back in 2013, it was supposed to be the ultimate weapon for BlackBerry. But we all know, the platform was short lived. By the end of 2015, it was clear there was no future for BlackBerry 10 OS, soon followed by BlackBerry announcing their first device running Android. Even though the platform was short lived, it did have a small ecosystem of it’s own developers and users. Today we have Puneet Kohli with us who is the Co-Founder of ReFocus Tech, a small company based out of Pune (India) that has more than 10 native BlackBerry 10 apps live on BlackBerry World. Let’s get started!
Q. How did ReFocus Tech start? Which was your first App to be published on BlackBerry World?
Puneet: Our team initially came together to build a game for Microsoft Imagine Cup. From there we pursued some more competitions as Decoding Tech. We officially started ReFocus Tech when it was decided that we can turn our teamwork and skills into a real business and sell high quality apps. We noticed a need for good developers on the BlackBerry 10 platform, and at the same time we did not have a very high marketing budget to market Android or iOS apps in the crowded space – so it was a mutual fit for us. We thought of ourselves as being bigger fish in a small pond (BlackBerry 10) as opposed to being small fish in a large pond (Android/iOS).
The first app we launched as ReFocus Tech was ARKick, which we debuted at BlackBerry Jam Hong Kong 2013. ARKick shows you places nearby in an Augmented Reality view. It was featured on the BlackBerry App Store multiple times, and is still considered one of the best BB10 apps by many users.
Q. When you started off, BlackBerry had been encouraging Devs to join the platform via multiple competitions and incentives. Do you think this helped them significantly?
Puneet: I would say this was a major reason why devs hopped onto the platform. They were offering $100 for every app published for a certain period of time. Some of our team did week-long hackathons to launch as many small games/apps (under the banner of Decoding Tech) as possible to earn up to $3000 through this program. This really helped us fund the development for the next few products we built.
BlackBerry also offered very good incentives for creating games on their platform. They were offering free BlackBerry 10 devices, Moga Pro Bluetooth Controller, Steelseries Bluetooth Controller if you launched a game that had Controller support and also received the ‘Built for BlackBerry’ certificate. Pastry Push won the BlackBerry GameOn Contest, which also offered a $2000 cash reward. I know of quite a few game developers who specifically decided to port their games to the BlackBerry 10 platform for these rewards and incentives. This really helped BlackBerry grow an initial selection of games on their platform. To be fair, I wouldn’t say that all of these games were high quality, but it helps when, as a platform, you’re trying to compete with iOS and Android with almost all of the smartphone market captured.
I remember speaking to other BlackBerry developers, and it was a really big thing to get a new testing device from BlackBerry every time they launched a new model, like say the Z30. We received most of our BlackBerry handsets as either gifts, rewards or testing devices from the company. This also helped us stay retained to the platform and continuously develop more apps and products for it, and keep optimizing for their newer devices.
Q. What was the work flow at ReFocus Tech? How were so many various app ideas executed?
Puneet: So, at ReFocus, at the core we were mostly engineers. Each engineer would pick up a specific product and work on it in parallel with the others. For our apps, we primarily used WebWorks, which made it extremely quick for us to develop – since it was essentially like developing a mobile website.
In our typical workflow, we would have a brainstorming session as a team. We would look for interesting ideas that were either just prototypes on Dribbble or Pinterest, or apps that were popular on either iOS or Android, but had no presence on BlackBerry. If we felt there was some unique value proposition we could bring to the table – we would pursue that idea. As a thumb rule, we made sure to have high quality UX that was unique to the BB10 experience and had a “wow” factor to it. Shout-out to our design lead, Aditya More, for making that possible!
Coming to the marketing side, the onus was mostly on me. I would work with the design team to create marketing campaigns. I would usually post a simple message on our BBM channel with a featured image of the app to come. I had a huge list of around 100+ BBM channel admins who I used to shoot out private messages to, to share our post. To some of the channels with larger audiences, I used to also provide codes for their users to download our paid apps for free.
All of our apps were integrated with analytic tools, so we would make sure to understand user behavior after launch. We also followed app store reviews, forum comments, our BBM Channels and user feedback really closely and update the app based on our analytical data and what most users were requesting. This helped us stay in good favor with the BB10 user base as we frequently updated our apps with much requested features.
We also collaborated with other developers. For example, we ran a cross-app promotion campaign with Nemory Studios, where a small popup banner to download our app was shown inside Nemory Studio apps such as Facebook Lite. Also, our Tilt 2 app was built in collaboration with Roger Leblanc, an independent BlackBerry developer who published apps such as PocketSafe under the CellNinja alias.
Q. Can you tell us how were the Apps perceived by users? Any notable awards you can boast off?
Puneet: Most of the apps we built had an average rating of 4.5+. The general consensus among the BlackBerry 10 user community is that we built very high quality apps which were often used to show off the potential of BB10 to other platform app users. We were also vetted by BlackBerry themselves, as we had a BlackBerry Elite member on our team, a verified BBM channel and were also granted BlackBerry Enterprise Partner status.
We actually did win quite a few notable awards! We infact started right off the bat with ARKick winning People’s choice award at BlackBerry Jam HongKong! Our game Pastry Push won the Best Game at BlackBerry GameOn competition and was also nominated for the CrackBerry App of the Year awards. The most notable awards we’ve received for our work is that our game Hues won Indie Game of the Year by Public Choice at NASSCOM GDC in 2013. It was also featured as one of the best games in Asia 2013 by TechInAsia. As a company, we often participated in hackathons and game-jams to refresh our minds, take some time off from our regular schedules, and get the creative juices running. Undoubtedly, we did end up winning a few of these as well!
Q. When was the first time ReFocus Tech saw that the platform was slowly going south? What were your initial plans to mitigate the downfall?
Puneet: By the start of 2015, we noticed that our app download and usage numbers were steadily declining. SoundScape was the last application we officially launched as ReFocus, which got a great initial response, but the return on investment didn’t show up in the numbers. Even our contacts within the Blogger community had started to become less enthusiastic about the platform, and some even moved on to writing about other things. I would often have my PRs bounce back to me, as an email would no longer exist. It was harder to promote on BBM too – with an extremely tiny active user base, especially with the rise of other messengers such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage storming the world. Also the fact that BlackBerry themselves decided to build Android smartphones, which didn’t say much about their confidence in BlackBerry 10 going forward. We were at this point where we figured BlackBerry had given its best effort, but had given up on the smartphone war. Seeing the lack of ROI, the dieing user-base and the overall decline in commitment to the platform, we also decided it made sense to move out.
You have to remember that BlackBerry 10 was a platform with a tiny user-base to begin with. I don’t know the official stats, but at any point of time, I don’t think there were more than a few million users. Comparing it to the overall smartphone market share, it had already hit 0% in the US by 2014. Android devices were as cheap as $100 by this time making it much cheaper to switch. Carriers having partnerships with phone vendors also made the switch more economical for people looking for a good mobile plan, especially in the USA. As developers, many of us were banking on a loyal repeat customer base that would pay for ‘premium’ apps. The catch here was that many apps that were premium on BB10 were free on iOS and Android. Combining both of these factors, it made a lot of economical sense for users to switch out to other platforms.
Q. What happened to ReFocus Tech in the end? How did everyone from the team move on?
Though we shut down ReFocus, it is still being operated by one of our founders under the banner of Little Boat Studios. I don’t know the exact details of where everyone that worked at ReFocus is right now, but many of us are in good places. We do have a few team members running their own startups now. Some are pursuing very interesting technical roles, and some ,like myself, are pursuing higher education. Even though we haven’t been together as a company, we’ve also collaborated on various projects. For example, our lead architect, Arun Swaminathan, has worked with me on some interesting projects such as Buno, a gesture-based note-taking app. Having the experience of working at, and running ReFocus Tech has definitely helped us all in many ways, some of which are irreplaceable. One simple example is that I was able to get a lot of consulting gigs with various startups due to my experience at ReFocus and am still actively working with some of these startups to build out their products by bringing my past experience and technical expertise to the table.
Q. What would you say about the BlackBerry 10 ecosystem right now, and the app development landscape in general?
Puneet: Surprisingly, a handful of developers have still remained loyal to the BlackBerry 10 platform and are still updating their apps. The most prominent example would be Nemory Studios who control most of the social media apps on the platform – the latest app update from them was a little over a week ago. But in general, the BlackBerry App World has become stale and the same apps have been trending in the past few years with little to no change. Companies like S4BB that had a collection of over 200 apps on the platform, stopped actively developing for the platform in 2016.
My personal thoughts are that the smartphone world is tough to penetrate with a new OS at this point and Android / iOS will continue to dominate the market for at least the next 10 years. Moving forward there are going to be even more interesting platforms to develop apps for – such as Mixed Reality (HoloLens, Magic Leap, HMD Odyssey) devices, virtual reality, smart watches, and even ‘open’ health monitors. From the perspective of an app developer, things have got a lot easier as well, thanks to frameworks like React Native and Fusetools, which let you write code once, but build natively for both iOS and Android. The entry barrier is significantly less, and both Apple and Google are trying to make it easier for new developers with Swift 4 releasing for iOS development, and Kotlin being officially supported as a development language from Google respectively. I would say, there’s no point throwing all your eggs into one basket, and staying nimble in the app development world is key. For example, when Facebook decided to shut Parse (Mobile backend-as-a-service) down, it was a huge hit for the independent app development community, but we move on fast, and Google’s Firebase quickly replaced it as the BaaS of choice. All in all, I feel having a knack for product design, and engineering know-how is much more important than specific knowledge of a platform – which can be learnt and relearnt as platforms come and go.
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