BlackBerry and Amazon: It's all about retaining business customers

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Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr

BlackBerry announced a partnership with Amazon this morning -- just hours before Amazon is due to unveil its own smartphone -- that will make Amazon's Appstore for Android apps available to users with BlackBerry 10 devices. The move is part of the upcoming BlackBerry 10.3 update that is due in the fall and comes one day before BlackBerry's quarterly earnings report.

BlackBerry has struggled to get developers to commit to its BlackBerry 10 platform and this follows efforts that the company has made to make it easier for Android developers to port apps to BlackBerry 10.

The move isn't unprecedented in the mobile world -- Barnes & Noble initially built its own app market for its Android-based Nook line of tablets and eventually opened the devices up to the entire Google Play store because lackluster sales and a limited selection of apps -- though it is a distinct change in strategy for BlackBerry.

The Amazon Appstore won't replace the existing BlackBerry World store, although BlackBerry will remove media content including music and videos from the store (though users will continue to be able to access already purchased content). That means that users will have access to existing BlackBerry 10 apps that were written for the platform as well as access to Android apps designed to run on Amazon's Kindle Fire devices.

It remains to be seen if there will be any performance or functionality issues when users run such non-native apps on BlackBerry handsets. Although the company has managed to improve the experience since it first began recruiting Android developers, ported Android apps generally don't perform as well on BlackBerry devices as on Android devices. Even if performance is comparable, the apps won't have access device or OS-specific features of BlackBerry 10.

The announcement begs the question: As a consumer, why would I buy a BlackBerry to access Android apps when I could buy an Android device? It's hard to find a reason other than a loyalty or preference for BlackBerry, something that is in short supply after years of iOS and Android outshining BlackBerry in the vast majority of markets, consumer and enterprise.

All about the enterprise

For enterprises, however, there are more significant reasons -- enterprise security, manageability, and messaging.

BlackBerry remains the most security-focused mobile platform on the market. There are organizations where intense security is a need, like regulated industries, governments agencies, military organizations, and government/military contractors. Many of these organizations have had BlackBerry as the centerpiece of their mobile strategy for several years and have mandates against other platforms for at least some of their employees based on security requirements.

As I noted earlier this year, BlackBerry will likely survive as a company over the coming years, but its customer base will likely be restricted to these types of organizations. That means, however, that BlackBerry will be forced into existence as a smaller business -- and that business may continue to contract as other companies ramp up secure mobility functionality. Microsoft clearly has ambitions in this area as do Samsung, Apple, and even Google.

Will any of these businesses be able to completely replicate BlackBerry's security capabilities? Maybe not, but they might come close enough that the number of users tied to BlackBerries in these organizations diminish to just the few that truly need that level of security.

Offering access to the Amazon Appstore might just keep some of these "secure but not ultra-secure" users invested in BlackBerry -- something key for BlackBerry and likely appreciated by the IT teams supporting those users for reasons related to both security and cost. (As I reported in March, ditching BlackBerry completely can be an expensive proposition).

Partnering but not outsourcing

Related to the company's enterprise focus, and buried at the bottom of BlackBerry's press release, is a paragraph on enterprise app development that clearly illustrates that BlackBerry isn't going completely outsource app creation to Amazon.

BlackBerry will unveil a new enterprise application partner program for corporate developers, ISVs and systems integrators, designed to expand the number of enterprise applications that leverage BlackBerry 10 to deliver business-class functionality and enhance users’ productivity, communication and collaboration.

This is an important statement because it means that enterprise developers will still be able to focus on BlackBerry coding practices and guidelines rather than having to adapt to consumer-oriented focus associated with Amazon's mobile lineup. It also ensures that developers can take advantage of BlackBerry 10 features and functionality and, for the moment at least, that BlackBerry devices will remain BlackBerry devices rather than becoming de facto Kindles.

Amazon apps and EMM

One issue that isn't addressed in BlackBerry's announcement is how access to the Amazon Appstore will fit into BlackBerry device, app, and content management. One of the big advantages that BlackBerry has going for it is the ability to manage virtually every facet of the device and its software at a very granular level. It's unclear whether the company will maintain such control of apps that were not written natively for its platform.

One option is to simply disallow access the Amazon's Appstore altogether in the name of security, but doing so would completely negate the potential positive impact of partnering with Amazon.

Will it work?

The big question here is whether or not BlackBerry can retain its current enterprise customers and keep the same number of users within each of those organizations on BlackBerry devices.

While adding users would be ideal for the company, today's announcement really seems more focused on enabling and retaining the users that the company already has, which is a bigger and more immediate priority. There's no clear answer to that question at this moment, though it will be interesting to watch this move play out over the second half of this year.

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