BlackBerry has announced it will license 240,000 Android applications from Amazon - in a move that may presage a downgrading of its internal developer relations efforts for its stuttering BB10 software.
The company announced the deal on Wednesday, saying in a blogpost that "We've heard your appeals for access to more applications for your BlackBerry 10 device [sic] and we are delivering." The move will give users access to popular apps such as Groupon, Netflix, Pinterest, Candy Crush Saga and Minecraft, all available through a direct download, the company said.
But the company has seen a number of key departures from its app developer relations division, just as analysts expect more losses in its forthcoming first-quarter financial results and slow handset sales in its first-quarter results to be announced on Thursday.
Speaking to Fox Business, BlackBerry chief executive John Chen said that he would be encouraging BlackBerry consumer app developers to focus instead on writing for Amazon's Android app store. "We have about 130,00 apps on BlackBerry world. Amazon have about 240,000 and they're getting into the phone world. We want to focus on enterprise, highly secure applications. Our partnership through Amazon will provide the consumer side."
Chen has been reducing the emphasis on consumer apps for some time. The former head of the developer relations division, Alec Saunders, has been moved to a position with QNX Software Systems - owned by BlackBerry - where he is working on the "internet of things", according to his LinkedIn profile page. His title as "Vice President Developer Relations and Ecosystem Development" is relegated to a past achievement. Others who have worked in the developer relations division, including some involved in contact with public-facing initiatives, have either been moved to other jobs or left the company in the past few months.
Developer relations are important for smartphone companies because their staff encourage outside programmers to write apps that enhance the value of the device. For Apple and Google, the creation of a huge "ecosystem" of developers who have written millions of apps, and who earn billions of pounds from phone owners' purchases.
Rumours on one BlackBerry fan site previously suggested that all the division's jobs could be affected as the iconic Canadian smartphone company tries to steer itself back to profitability, and stem defections among both consumers and business customers.
The deal with Amazon could be key in retaining consumers who want access to popular apps. One of BlackBerry's key efforts in its new BB10 software has been to enable its newest range of smartphones to run Android apps. But the app developers still had to make some changes for them to work on the BlackBerry handsets, and owners faced some challenges installing them. BlackBerry says that the Amazon deal will mean owners can download the apps directly from Amazon's app store.
The announcement contains no hints about the effect on the internal developer relations team, nor what the deal means for third-party developers who have been working to support the platform.
In a statement, BlackBerry told the Guardian that there was “nothing new" to report about its developer division and that "any headcount reductions we are making have already been disclosed previously. Alec Saunders continues to be employed at BlackBerry, he is the Head of the Internet of Things, QNX Cloud.” The company did not respond to questions about the future role of the developer relations division.
Despite Saunders' best efforts when in charge of attracting outside developers, BlackBerry has struggled to build a strong ecosystem around its new BB10 operating system, launched in January 2013 with the Z10 smartphone. The discovery that a third of the apps on the BlackBerry app store were written by one company, Hong Kong-based S4BB, suggested that there was less broad interest than seemed the case from the raw number of apps in the store.
Senior members of the development team and of its social media team have either shifted jobs or left the company. Alex Kinsella, formerly a senior product manager and social media manager at the company, left in January 2014 after a five-year career, while Victoria Berry, formerly the "director of ecosystem PR" - and so important in attracting developer interest through media relations - left in April after nearly 10 years at the company.
Patrick Kosiol, chief executive of the S4BB, told the Guardian before the Amazon announcement: "I am seeing BlackBerry in constant restructuring over the past years … there has always been a quite vivid rotation of personnel within the developer relation folks."
BlackBerry has seen its fortunes plummet in the past two years as buyers have turned away from its keyboard-based devices towards Apple's iPhone and others using Google's Android mobile software. In its past two financial years since March 2012 it ha recorded net losses of $6.5bn, cut thousands of jobs, and seen handset shipments drop from a peak of 14.9m per quarter in December 2010 to just 1.3m in the quarter to the start of March 2014.
Chen, BlackBerry's chief executive brought in to effect a rescue of the company last September after an abortive attempt to find a buyer or organise a leveraged buyout, has been focussing on cutting costs and concentrating on the core business, of government and large business users who demand high security.
In its fourth quarter to the end of February, BlackBerry recorded revenues of just $976m - its smallest since the same period in 2007 - and shipped just 1.3m phones, and recorded net losses of $423m.
With its first-quarter results due on Thursday, analysts expect it to report revenues of $970m, and a loss of about $200m.
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