How RIM intends to light a fire under developers

Alec Saunders, the new head of Research In Motion's developer relations, is working hard to make his case for why developers should be writing apps for BlackBerry and BBX. His strategy includes going more local.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
3 min read
A view of the BlackBerry PlayBook.
Alec Saunders is attempting to get more developers to write apps for the PlayBook and BBX. James Martin/CNET

When Alec Saunders put up his e-mail address while on stage at Research In Motion's developer conference last month, it wasn't just a showy stunt.

RIM's head of developer relations, Alec Saunders. Research In Motion

In fact, he spent the entire following weekend responding to e-mails from curious developers.

"My wife wasn't too happy with me," he quipped.

Saunders intends to answer every e-mail that comes in, and plans to aggressively court developers as he makes the case for why it's worthwhile to work with RIM. That's the kind of attention the company has failed to pay in the past, much to its detriment. Saunders is looking to turn things around and get warm and fuzzy with the development community as the company prepares to launch its next-generation mobile platform, BBX.

"I don't know what happened before, and honestly don't care," he said in a recent interview. "I took this job because developers are people I like to hang out with."

Saunders, who started in August, has engineered a wholesale change in the old developer relations team. Instead of a central operation based in Canada, he has worked to set up local operations in different regions around the world, including hiring people from that area.

He set up a satellite office in Silicon Valley, where staffers head out to Android meet-ups to show developers the benefits of bringing their apps over to BBX. There are offices in different parts of Latin America, where developer evangelists go after local media companies and sports teams to create apps for its older BlackBerry platform. There are similar offices in China, Europe, and one starting up on the East Coast. He said his main task now has been beefing up those local teams.

"The markets are created one conversation at a time," he said.

In addition, Saunders said the marketing budget at his disposal is significantly larger than it has been in past campaigns. He added that there's a broad spectrum of tools he can use to win over developers, including marketing support, joint announcements, and even financial incentives. He said every situation and developer is different.

The central tenets of his argument to developers have been the size of the market, the profitability of the apps on App World, and the viral distribution capabilities of BlackBerry Messenger. Despite shrinking market share in the major developed markets, the company's expansion overseas has allowed it to grow its subscriber base by 40 percent to more than 70 million. Saunders has regularly touted App World as the second-most profitable application store behind Apple's App Store.

"BlackBerry users are not afraid to pay for apps," he said, adding that developers have expressed surprise to him when they learn of how profitable the apps can be.

Saunders said that 13 percent of BlackBerry developers have made more than $100,000, compared with 1 percent of iOS developers who have made more than $1,000.

Indeed, a BlackBerry developer is a larger fish in a smaller pond, compared with a developer struggling to break into the expansive iOS app community.

The BBM instant-message service, meanwhile, has recently been opened up to developers, allowing them to use it to generate awareness and distribution for apps. Saunders said since BBM was tweaked in August, there was a sudden and sharp rise in downloads.

"I get a lot of genuine excitement," he said about the conversations he is having with developers.

While the PlayBook hasn't sold particularly well, Saunders is making the case to developers that if they create an app for the tablet, it'll be ready to run on BBX on day one of the launch.

RIM gave free PlayBook tablets to every developer at DevCon, and Saunders said he expects to distribute another 25,000 tablets to qualified developers.

There have been a number of promotions thrown for the PlayBook, as RIM and its retail partners look to unload their inventory. The latest is a $199 Black Friday special offered by Staples.

Saunders said there is a lot of noise in the market, and acknowledged that RIM doesn't have the best history of working with developers. But he believes that is changing.

"For a long time, we weren't super clear on what we were doing," he said. "Now that we're clear, we're getting people to come back."