BlackBerry 10: Maybe the Franken-system isn't a good idea after all

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 5, 2013

From The News Desk

Remember that old saying about not counting your eggs before they hatch? Well, the same principle applies to operating system makers flaunting high-profile apps before they've been ported to the platform. BlackBerry is learning this lesson the hard way, with both Instagram and Netflix saying that they have no plans to develop native apps for the new BlackBerry 10 operating system.

I know, I know. Old ground and whatnot -- bear with me.

Back when it was still called Research in Motion, BlackBerry told media outlets, including AllThingsD and The Verge, that it was "in talks" with both Netflix and Instagram. While "in talks" can mean anything from "They're definitely bringing the app to our platform" and "We drunkenly emailed Kevin Systrom and Reed Hastings one night and are sure that they'll get back to us," the general impression was that BlackBerry 10 would have the apps shortly after launch.

Instagram was first to dispel the notion. “There will be no [native] Instagram for BB10 for now,” a source told AllThingsD. “Frankly, I’m not sure there will ever be.” It's worth pointing out that Instagram was slow to building a native Android app as well, so there is still some hope for BlackBerry 10 to maybe get Android at some undetermined point in the future, it won't be soon enough for BlackBerry 10 to provide a service many Android and iOS users are used to being able to access.

And hey, Instagram isn't on Windows Phone either, and that's doing... well, it's doing something.

Netflix joined Instagram yesterday, with sources again telling AllThingsD that the company has "no current plans for a BlackBerry app." The "current" caveat allows Netflix to keep its options open, as openly rejecting any operating system could come around and bite them right in the little red envelope.

While Netflix and Instagram are perhaps the largest companies to stay clear of BlackBerry 10, they are by no means the only ones doing so. Many conversations I have with companies mention iOS and Android, with BlackBerry coming up only as an afterthought or as a "Well... we'll see how it goes."

Appboy, a customer relationship management platform for mobile, currently has BlackBerry 10 on the bottom of its "platforms to support" list, directly below Web apps. A popular travel site has all but given up on BlackBerry, reassigning the team that built its app to work on other projects. Check out Kickstarter some time -- many projects involving mobile mention iOS, Android, and HTML5, with nary a thought given to BlackBerry.

Earlier this year I wrote that BlackBerry might have some hope for its ecosystem despite the bitter taste (too trite?) it has left in developers', consumers', and companies' mouths. That hope lie in BlackBerry's decision to support Android applications, creating a Frankenstein-esque ecosystem that could shamble along until BlackBerry was able to support itself.

Earlier this year I was wrong.

In his review of the BlackBerry Z10, the flagship keyboard-less (typing that really makes you think about how much that should be a given at this point) smartphone launched alongside BlackBerry 10, The Verge's Joshua Topolsky minces no words as he lambasts BlackBerry's method of supporting Android apps:

Perhaps the strangest and most egregious part of BlackBerry's app play is its inclusion of Android apps. Yes, Android developers can submit and sell their apps in BlackBerry World alongside other, native BB10 applications, and there is essentially no way to tell the difference between the two. But man, is there a difference.

The Android apps I tested while using the Z10 performed abysmally on the phone. Sluggish, ugly, and disconnected from the core OS. In fact, because these apps are being run in a software emulation of Android — Gingerbread no less (that's version 2.3) — they bear little to no relationship to the rest of the operating system. Even the tool you use to select text and the contextual menus are from another operating system! It's a terrible choice on BlackBerry's part, and one I hope the company quickly abandons. It's not a shortcut to having a lot of apps — it's a shortcut to having a lot of bad apps that turn customers off. Frankenstein must have forgotten a few nuts and bolts.

BlackBerry 10 isn't bereft of apps. BlackBerry's "developer schmoozing," as I wrote in January, might miss the point but has managed to get more than a few apps on its platform.

BlackBerry 10 is simply bereft of two of the most popular apps that would allow the operating system to appeal to more than an enterprise customer who wants to own a smartphone that doesn't make him hate technology and pine for a rotary phone. (Ha! The rotary phone might be more advanced than -- you know what? Never mind.)

The concept of the Franken-system is still appealing, if only because it could allow nascent operating systems, like Mozilla's Firefox OS and Canonical's Ubuntu, to offer must-have applications at or shortly after launch. And if there are any platforms that might utilize apps built for others, it's those two -- the promise of the open Web is that it will free developers and consumers from lock-in effects and level the playing field, so to speak.

Operating systems that offer access to apps native to another platform might not fare so well. BlackBerry 10 offers a fine example with its lackluster (to put it gently) support for Android applications. It simply isn't the solution that I or the guys in Waterloo thought it might be. Maybe Sailfish, the operating system developed by Jolla, will offer a better solution, but right now that fish should be taken with a few pounds of salt.

Truly native apps matter. As Gizmodo's Brian Barrett put it last week, hardware often matters less than the operating system and ecosystem that it allows consumers to access. Apps are likely the most important aspect of that ecosystem, and if a platform doesn't offer something that consumers have grown accustomed to -- say, Instagram and Netflix -- it's fighting an already-uphill battle with one hand tied behind its back and a blindfold on.

Getting those applications should be a priority for any nascent platform. Consumers make the difference between also-ran operating systems and potential upstarts, so their priorities should also be the company's priorities. And what consumers want are the apps that allow them to use the services that they, and their friends, family, and acquiantances, use every day.