As Apple approached its one billionth app served for itsiPhoneandiPod touch, RIM unleashed the first of what will be many counterattacks to the juggernaut that is the App Store. Yes, hardware design and features still matter, but the fact that Apple uses apps to sell its devices in its ads tells you that we've reached a tipping point. Called BlackBerry App World, RIM's store has some things going for it, including a clean design and a good selection of premium applications in various categories; it also offers a decent array of high-qualilty free apps. However, RIM needs a more streamlined billing and installation process--and devices with more internal memory--for App World to take off.
Getting Started and Interface
To get started, go to www.blackberry.com/appworld on your device (only devices with trackballs and the Storm are currently supported) and download the 523KB BlackBerry App World application. It took us less than 2 minutes to get up and running on aBlackBerry Curve 8330andBlackBerry Bold. Once you launch App World, which took 10 seconds on our Curve, you're greeted with an attractive interface. The center of the screen has a rotating carousel of featured items, and along the bottom of the display are quick-launch icons for browsing by Category, Top Downloads, Search, and My World (where you can see what you've downloaded).
Featured items range from the free Shazam (for identifying music playing nearby) and Bloomberg Mobile (for tracking stocks and financial news) to the New York Times Crosswords ($4.99) and AP News ($2.99). Each page displayed the app's name, price, star rating, and a brief description. To scroll through these selections, you swipe your trackball to the left or right or use the Storm's touchscreen. Whether you choose to go this route or browse by Category or Top Downloads, you can easily select an app to get a fuller description and download it. However, full reviews and screenshots are another click away; on the iPhone you can see screenshots on the first page but not reviews. Also, don't expect nearly as many apps here as what Apple stocks; on our Curve we counted 733 programs in App World as of mid-April, versus more than 25,000 in the iPhone App Store. The number of apps, however, vary from device to device; RIM says there is collectively more than 1,000 apps available for compatible BlackBerry devices.
One decision RIM made early on was to not stock 99-cent applications and to start premium application pricing at $2.99. This move was made ostensibly for two reasons: to help developers make more money than they might on the iPhone's storefront, which is rife with 99-cent apps, and to signal to consumers that there is a notable quality difference between free and paid apps. While we can live with that decision, it's hard to imagine how much better the $2.99 PhoneyFart is better than the 99-cent iFart Mobile.
The biggest beef we have with App World is the billing process. To download a premium app, you need to have a PayPal account. Worse, you can't create an account on your BlackBerry; you must set one up on a PC. This roadblock pretty much eliminates impulse buys. RIM says it is working with the major carriers so that you'll have the option of having purchases appear on your monthly wireless bill, a feature that can't come soon enough. (Microsoft says that its Windows Mobile Marketplace will give users the option of using their credit card or going through their service provider.)
Jumping through Hoops
If you've ever used a BlackBerry before, you already know that installing applications can involve multiple steps, such as restarting your device or deleting another app. But within the context of a storefront that's supposed to make the process simple, these buzzkills are more jarring.
Take Vlingo, a compelling application that lets you send e-mails and texts, search the Web and update your social networking status using your voice, and more. After about a minute and a half of downloading the app and watching it slowly install on our Curve, we were greeted with a confusing Permissions screen that listed 18 items with "Allow" next to it. You're supposed to press the Menu button and then Save to get past this screen. Then you need to accept the Terms and Conditions and Click Next. Then you need to click Yes on the next screen if you agree to have Vlingo use your location information. Not every app forced this tedious process, but it was a nuisance for those that did.
Another application, WeatherEye, forced us to reset our BlackBerry Bold before it could complete installation. More than three minutes later, we had control of our device again. That's not good. These are not issues with the App World itself but with the underlying architecture of BlackBerry software.
Some iPhone apps require that you grant permission to use your location, but the overall process is much more seamless than with the App World. In general, you see an app you want in the App Store, click on it, enter your iTunes password, and then you see it begin downloading to your iPhone with a little progress bar beneath the icon for the app. No resets required.
Click to enlargeSo how about the apps themselves within BlackBerry App World? They're of good quality and fairly polished, but there's not much new here. With a few exceptions, many BlackBerry owners will find the apps that populate the Top Downloads list to be very familiar. Viigo for BlackBerry (a one-stop shop for news and RSS feeds, weather updates, sports info, and stocks and finance) was recently updated in March but has been around for years, and MySpace, Slacker, and TicketMaster have all been available for several months. Other popular BlackBerry apps, such as TwitterBerry, Facebook, and Yahoo Go, were noticeably absent.
Choose Apps Wisely
With hundreds (and eventually thousands) of applications at your disposal, you'll likely want to download many of them if only to try them out--at least the free ones. But depending on your device and what you already have stored on it, you could run out of room fast. On a Curve that had about 500 e-mails, we were greeted with a note in App World announcing our device had too little memory to complete a download after we had downloaded 16 apps. A BlackBerry Bold with 14 apps downloaded to it (and no messages in its inbox) reported having 7.7 MB of free application memory space left. Considering the average size of the top 10 most popular apps is 559.5KB, that's enough room for about 13 more apps. You don't have to be nearly as judicious on the iPhone because they come with much more memory (8GB or 16GB).
The purpose of the BlackBerry App World is to bring a ton of popular programs to users in one place so that they don't have to download it from the desktop or use their BlackBerry's browser, and in that respect, this storefront succeeds. Assuming RIM can make payments easier, minimize the number of hoops to jump through to start using programs, and do the little things Apple already does well--such as creating separate top download lists for free and paid apps--App World will be a formidable competitor to the App Store.