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Meet the man who would make BlackBerry apps cool

Alec Saunders has accomplished the seemingly impossible and gotten developers interested in RIM's new mobile operating system, which is set to be unveiled this week.

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.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
10 min read
BlackBerry Jam Americas 2012 keynote
The fate of Research in Motion rests on the success or failure of BlackBerry 10. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- Alec Saunders needed a little bait.

Soon after Saunders took over the developer relations team, he asked Research In Motion's then co-CEO Mike Lazaridis in October 2011 for 25,000 BlackBerry PlayBook tablets. When Lazaridis asked why, Saunders said he intended to give them away.

"His jaw just dropped to the floor," Saunders told CNET. "He stood there flabbergasted."

Lazaridis ultimately agreed, and Saunders began giving PlayBooks out to developers. He followed that up by giving away more than 8,000 units of RIM's Dev Alpha devices, which ran an early version of BlackBerry 10.

Saunders knew he needed to get the long-ignored BlackBerry developer base excited again. In 48 out of the last 52 weeks, he has been on a plane circling the globe in an effort to drum up interest in every corner. Combine the mileage he and his team of nearly 100 evangelists have logged for RIM, and there would be enough to travel to the moon and back five times over, or 2.5 million miles.

"I took December off and took the time to get to know my wife," he quipped.

Saunders has embraced a concept that RIM had long ignored: that developers and a healthy app "ecosystem" can make or break an operating system. He's tried to make the company more accommodating and responsive to developers. It's the touchy-feely stuff RIM execs never thought was important.

"Development sentiment is crucial," he said. "Developer interest is a leading indicator of success for any platform."

There's a lot riding on BlackBerry 10, which after a series of delays is expected to be unveiled on Wednesday in New York. Having had no significant new product in more than a year, RIM needs a hit. Badly. Simply put, the BlackBerry operating system is in free fall. In the third quarter, the BlackBerry OS accounted for 5.3 percent of the market, a tick above Samsung Electronics' homegrown Bada OS (little more than a glorified experiment for the Korean handset giant), and less than half the 11 percent share it held a year ago, according to a Gartner study. In the same period, Android's market share surged to 72.4 percent from 52.5 percent a year ago.

Now RIM has has to win back consumers who have long abandoned their BlackBerrys for iPhones and Android devices. It's planning a media blitz, complete with Super Bowl commercial. At the same time, BlackBerry has to compete against another upstart mobile operating system, Windows Phone by Microsoft, which is also seeking to be the No. 3 platform behind Google's Android and Apple's iOS.

Indeed, RIM has a long, tough road ahead of it, but credit Saunders for connecting with the developer community. When the operating system is unveiled, it will have 70,000 applications, which the company boasts is the most apps for a mobile platform at launch. Android had a little more than 50 apps at launch, but that was before the explosion of app development.

RIM's make-or-break moment: Blackberry OS 10
Watch this: RIM's make-or-break moment: Blackberry OS 10

"I can't describe what (Saunders) achieved in one and a half years," CEO Thorsten Heins said in a recent interview. "I can't speak highly enough of him."

Of course, RIM will be going up against two ecosystems with an entrenched following. Apple, for instance, boasts of more than three-quarters of a million apps for iOS, while Android has more than 700,000 apps in the market. The Windows Phone Store has 125,000 apps, having doubled in size after the launch of Windows Phone 8 late last year.

Fresh start
I sat with Saunders earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show to talk about his efforts to convince skeptical developers to give BlackBerry another chance. I had arranged to meet with with him in the Rojo lounge of the Palms Place hotel, an extension of the Palms Casino Resort.

Alec Saunders, vice president of developer relations. RIM
Rojo is a small, dark, and smoke-filled bar awash in red-neon accent lighting. A downed air-conditioning system meant a stiflingly hot environment, despite the windy and cold weather outside. It looked like hell, and that night, it felt like it too.

When I finally met up with Saunders and his entourage, which included a few public relations representatives and another developer evangelist, Tom Anderson, the heat in the bar forced us out to the minimalist and slate-dominated lobby for our sit-down chat.

Saunders wore a black suit jacket, button-down shirt, and blue jeans, and had just come in from a flight from Ottawa.

A family man who leads a scout troop in his off-hours, Saunders can't help but to come off as a nice, normal guy. He spoke in a calm and even tone with a slight Canadian accent. But his jovial and seemingly laid-back manner gave way to enthusiasm when talking about RIM's developer efforts.

"We're building a good head of steam behind us," he said. "Good things are happening."

Saunders had roots at RIM even before he joined the company in June 2011. He had previously worked at QNX before leaving to run his own startup, a Web conferencing provider called Iotum. QNX was eventually bought by RIM in April 2010, and its software forms the foundation for BlackBerry 10.

So it was a homecoming of sorts for Saunders when he joined RIM, right about when its market share started to collapse.

"It seemed like a good challenge to me," he said.

A peek at BlackBerry OS 10's browser, messenger, and flow (pictures)

See all photos

He made it clear he was a different sort of RIM exec. At one of his first public outings as vice president of developer relations, Saunders made the highly unusual move of posting his e-mail address while on stage at one of the company's many developer conferences.

"That was huge," said Jeremy Wall, a part-time BlackBerry developer who was in attendance at that conference and dabbled with the platform for the past decade. He, like everyone else in attendance, immediately grabbed his phone to update his contact list.

The result: a flood of e-mail that occupies a good chunk of Saunders' time. He received 14,793 e-mails -- in the last quarter alone. More recently, he's also taken to Twitter to answer questions, where he tweets under the user name @asaunders.

"My wife wasn't too happy with me," he joked during an interview with CNET shortly after that conference.

Fixing a broken system
The old RIM wasn't exactly friendly to developers. From complications signing up to fragmentation in the different versions of the BlackBerry operating system, creating an app for the platform could be a nightmare. One developer politely called it "rough," and said the company previously had the tendency to drop or ignore questions or concerns.

At the same time, iOS was beginning to generate interest from app developers. RIM executives, meanwhile, clung to the idea that e-mail and security were more important to users.

"Sometimes a good (butt)-whoopin' is what you need," said Michael Nowlin, who works for a cable set-top box manufacturing company but is an enthusiast and part-time developer known as "BlackBerry Hank."

When Saunders joined, he knew RIM had big problems. So he made his pitch to the most loyal BlackBerry developers first before expanding to a broader audience.

Saunders laid out a model of responsiveness for which developers have expressed appreciation. When Wall, a part-time developer who also works at a manufacturer of weather stations, was setting up a local meet-up between BlackBerry developers and a RIM executive, he had hit a wall with the usual company contacts. When he e-mailed Saunders, he got a response back in 10 minutes and had an executive on his way to the meetup.

"I'll sing the praises of Alec Saunders all day for that," Wall said.

That new-found enthusiasm also attracted Nowlin, who is a relative newcomer to the BlackBerry ecosystem. He hopped on the bandwagon after seeing the kinds of tools and support available to him during a developer conference in June.

He likewise praised Saunders for his responsiveness and willingness to listen.

"He made me feel like he really cared, and he showed it," said Nowlin, a San Antonio native who works support for a set-top box manufacturer and develops BlackBerry 10 apps on the side.

The BlackBerry PlayBook could see an OS upgrade next week.
The BlackBerry PlayBook wasn't exactly a hot seller. James Martin/CNET

While relations between developers and RIM improved, it was largely moot. With the older BlackBerry platform showing its age and the company moving to an unproven next-generation operating system, developers weren't too keen to take a chance, especially with the exploding potential coming from iOS and Android.

It was Saunders' idea of the PlayBook giveaway that got developers taking a more serious looking at RIM again.

Looking back, the PlayBook was ultimately more valuable as a relationship-building tool than a product. The much-hyped tablet launched in early 2011 with a thud, with only modest sales coming after heavy discounts and several software updates. To be fair, the PlayBook continues to sell, and the company shipped 255,000 units in the last reported quarter.

Early in the giveaway, RIM wasn't terribly choosy when handing over the PlayBooks -- a move Saunders said bought a lot of goodwill. But more recently, the company raised its standards and sought out developers with a genuine interest in the platform. At the last SXSW conference, developers were pitching RIM execs with half-finished apps before they were rewarded with a PlayBook to complete their work.

"RIM has done an astonishing job of getting developers to back a company which many people have completely written off," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis.

Time and money
While both the iOS and Android platforms can boast of massive user bases, RIM could only point to the PlayBook, a few thousand developer units and some fleeting glimpses of actual BlackBerry 10 products, which have faced multiple, frustrating delays.

As a result, there are still legions of developers who still veer away from RIM, considering it a risky bet next to the larger platforms. According to a June report by market analytic firm VisionMobile, the BlackBerry platform (old and new) is "very close to becoming an endangered species," with 41 percent of developers surveyed saying they were dumping the platform.

So Saunders and his team have shifted the conversation to address two other key concerns for developers: time and money.

BlackBerry 10 on the Dev Alpha device
A peek at BlackBerry 10 software on the pre-release developer device. Lynn La/CNET

RIM promised a much easier development process with BlackBerry 10. Regardless of the code or platform, it could easily be moved over to BlackBerry.

"Bring your code, and we'll find a way to make it happen," Saunders said.

RIM evangelist Anderson said he had gotten use to getting greeted with looks of skepticism when he went to talk to developers about BlackBerry. Now, he said he can turn them around after just a few minutes by showing them the simplified process of development and porting.

Equally important was the potential monetary return on a BlackBerry app. RIM executives told developers at a conference in May that it would guarantee that an app would generate $10,000 in revenue in their first year, or the company would make up the difference. (The fine print is that the app would have to be certified and generate at least $1,000 from downloads).

RIM has argued that its platform is a deceptively lucrative place for developers -- if you exercise a little math. If you remove the top 5 percent of highest-grossing apps, then BlackBerry's platform actually generates the most revenue, Saunders said. So for little-known developers without big brands, BlackBerry may prove to be a better home, he argued.

While fairly negative on BlackBerry's prospects, the VisionMobile report did note that a BlackBerry developer made an average of nearly $4,000 a month, or 4 percent better than the next best performing platform, iOS.

Beyond those factors, Saunders and his team has tried to directly talk to as many developers as possible. Since June, it has held 44 developer-focused BlackBerry Jam World Tour events and 11 Enterprise Jam events in more than 40 countries, hosting a total of nearly 10,000 developers. In addition to the launch on Wednesday, Saunders is preparing for BlackBerry Jam Europe next week.

There's little choice: These developers are essentially going on blind faith, with no actual products to work from and no proof that consumers will even buy them. Saunders and his team have had to apply a personal touch.

At least among its hardcore devotees, it's working.

"The developer community that's behind them now is organic," said George McKinney, an independent app developer based in Los Angeles. "They built it."

McKinney, who employs three people in a small development shop, primarily does work on iOS and Android apps, but said he works on BlackBerry 10 apps "because we have a lot of fun with it."

Singing a different tune
Saunders and fellow executives Chris Smith, vice president of application platform & tools, and Martyn Mallick, vice president of global alliances and business, were certainly having fun when they shot a music video set to REO Speedwagon's "Keep on Loving You."

When it was released on YouTube, the video -- and RIM -- became the target of ridicule from the press, who called it "awful" and feared it was a desperate and awkward attempt to woo developers.

Saunders' eyes lit up when I asked him about it, and it was clearly a labor of love. He said the developers enjoyed the video, and were captivated when it aired during its conferences. He said it was an attempt to break away from the usual "stupid energy clip" that precedes speeches and demos.

"We had a lot of fun with it," he said, teasing that one more music video was in the works.

Less light-heartedly, in the past few weeks, RIM has started to contact developers through e-mails and blog posts, pushing them to step up and get their apps ready in time for the launch this week.

In a last-minute scramble, Saunders earlier this month helped run an online "Portathon" that netted the submission of 15,000 apps for BlackBerry 10 after more than a day and a half.

"Well, there you have it...Feel like I've run a marathon," Saunders tweeted after the event.

For Saunders and the rest of RIM, the marathon to get the company back on track has just begun.

BlackBerry 10 in action
Watch this: BlackBerry 10 in action