BlackBerry's call for application neutrality is bizarre and unworkable

BlackBerry CEO John Chen wants application developers to jump on his burning platform – it shouldn’t and won’t happen

The CEO of BlackBerry wants to make it mandatory for app developers to add his company’s operating system to their platforms. The information industry remains relatively youthful so left-field ideas are fairly common, even if they are nevertheless quite barmy at times. Think of SCO’s attempt to wreak legal havoc in the Unix and Linux worlds, or consider the madness of software patenting, for example. And now add John Chen’s bizarre comments to the fold.

Few app developers will bother with BlackBerry native app development because the prospects for a decent return on investment are slim. Some developers will pursue their favourite environments or explore new platforms out of intellectual curiosity but most will follow the money, hence the dominance of the app marketplaces for iOS and Android. Apple and Google can make profits for their partners. BlackBerry, Windows Phone and the rest? Not so much.

In a blog post, BlackBerry boss John Chen calls for “application neutrality” and argues his case thus:

“Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality. Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level. Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet.”

I don’t know who is advising John Chen on his public pronouncements but they need to get a grip. You can’t force application developers’ hands. They will place their bets where they may and anything else would smack of Soviet-style politicking. The only exception might be where an application or service has become so dominant and important that it would hurt the market and consumer choice for that product not to be widely available. And even then, the internet provides a huge source of services that will work across devices and platforms.

The fact is that Apple and Google have created hugely successful ecosystems. At Microsoft/Nokia, Steve Ballmer and Stephen Elop bet the farm on creating Windows Phone as a “third ecosystem” that would give carriers, retailers and developers an alternative to the Big Two and give Nokia an exit from the “burning platform” of Symbian. For the developers at least, that third ecosystem offer was mostly rejected and a large part of the reason for the small market share that Windows Phone has garnered is that there aren’t enough apps available (and even those apps that are available are often second-rate or fail to be regularly updated).

Capitalism is a rough and tumble business where the weak get hurt and the winners take the spoils. It’s far from perfect but it’s infinitely preferable to Chen’s implicit suggestion that there should be some sort of regulatory intervention that makes developers embrace stragglers and their burning platforms. I’ve argued before (here and here) that BlackBerry still has options. Its user base might have shrunk but its demographic is powerful and its advocates are passionate and loyal. Better to focus on making the best of the future than indulging in this Alice Through the Looking Glass view of the world.