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At BlackBerry Conference, App Developers Stand by RIM

The device maker has struggled while Apple and Android phones have thrived, but app developers say the company’s audience is still big enough to matter.

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has lost a lot of ground in the smartphone market, but at the company’s annual conference for application developers on Tuesday in San Jose, California, it was clear that one of its most important constituencies is sticking by the company, at least for now.

Take a peek: RIM’s CEO, Thorsten Heins, demonstrates the upcoming BlackBerry 10 software that will be crucial for his struggling company.

Once a leading player in the smartphone business, RIM’s BlackBerry has fallen behind Apple’s iPhone and phones running on Google’s Android platform. Those devices surged in popularity among consumers drawn to their touch screens and quickly growing app stores. RIM made a few seemingly half-hearted efforts to keep up by releasing touch-screen BlackBerrys and, last year, a tablet called the PlayBook. But it only fell behind. According to IDC, BlackBerrys comprised 4.8 percent of global smartphone shipments in the second quarter, compared with 11.5 percent a year earlier. Android smartphones and the iPhone made up 85 percent of the market.

Now Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM hopes its long-delayed next-generation operating software, BlackBerry 10, will reëstablish the company. BlackBerry 10 is scheduled to come out early next year—missing the always-important holiday shopping season, but perhaps giving the company plenty of time to get it right.

At this week’s conference, BlackBerry Jam Americas, developers who write applications for the phones got to see some of the features that will be in the BlackBerry 10 software. One of them is BlackBerry Peek, which lets you do things like swipe up on the phone’s screen to view notifications and swipe right to see the BlackBerry Hub, which combines all kinds of messages and status updates in a central spot. The software will also make it possible for people to easily switch between a “work” and “personal” profile by swiping downward on the screen to reveal virtual buttons for each.

Adrian Perez, a student at nearby San Jose State University who created an app for the PlayBook tablet, said he was excited by the slick look of BlackBerry 10. Much of the enthusiasm felt by Perez and other developers is rooted in loyalty. Playing with a BlackBerry handset at a table in the Porting Lounge—an area ostensibly set up to allow developers to “port” their apps from platforms like Android or iOS to BlackBerry—attendee Leon Champagnie said he’s been a BlackBerry user for years, so it seemed like the best place to start working on his first app, which will be a collaborative to-do grocery list.

He and others also said RIM still offers them a good-sized audience. There are more than 80 million BlackBerry users around the world, and yet there’s less competition for developers in the app store. There are 105,000 in the BlackBerry App World, compared to 700,000 for the iPhone and 600,000 for Android smartphones. By developing programs for BlackBerrys, “you’re a big fish in a small pond,” Champagnie said. “You can be discovered a lot easier than you would on the other platforms.”

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