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Can Amazon hookup light a fire under BlackBerry?

The reality of the smartphone business is that your device is only as good as the apps that run on it. BlackBerry Ltd. was very late coming to this realization – at the cost of its once-dominant market share. The company's new partnership deal with Amazon.com Inc. will deliver a high-speed upgrade to one of BlackBerry's most glaring deficiencies – but like with practically everything the Canadian mobile-device maker does, the question is whether it's too late.

Under the deal, announced Wednesday morning, BlackBerry 10 devices will have full access to the Amazon Appstore beginning this fall (in conjunction with an updated operating system), where customers will be able to download applications and games designed for the widely popular Android platform, as well as music and video.

In doing so, BlackBerry is hitching its cart to one of the fastest-growing app stores in the world; Amazon reported this week that the store has almost tripled its offerings in the past year, to more than 240,000 apps. While that's still pretty tiny compared with the million-plus apps at Apple and Google's stores, there's some serious momentum – particularly with app developers, who are apparently fond of the strong revenues that flow their way from Amazon's store.

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For the BlackBerry user experience, this could be quite a dramatic, welcome and – it must be said – egregiously overdue tide change. The company massively missed the boat on the app revolution, failing to recognize until way too late that consumers' appetite for cool downloads had supplanted the hardware itself as the critical driver of handset sales and market share. And as its user numbers shrivelled, it became a vicious circle – app developers were increasingly unwilling to dedicate time and energy to BlackBerry – which deepened BlackBerry's unpopularity. While the company redoubled its efforts on the app front in conjunction with the introduction of the more app-friendly BlackBerry 10 devices last year, its BlackBerry World app store offers a meagre 130,000 apps – and growth has stalled. What's worse, customers complain that far too many are low-quality apps that hardly measure up to what is available for other devices from other stores.

With the Amazon deal, BlackBerry has vastly expanded the app offerings for its customers – including, crucially, many of the world's most popular apps (such as Netflix, Groupon, Minecraft and Pinterest) that have been conspicuously unavailable on BlackBerry. And it no longer has to convince app developers to support BlackBerry versions of their products; Amazon is already well ahead of them on that front, and has the kind of traction with developers that BlackBerry was clearly not getting on its own.

This certainly makes the prospect of a BlackBerry 10 much more attractive for users – adding an important layer to the corporate-focused features of the device and its high-security, business-related apps that have become about the only thing BlackBerry has had going for it any more. However, all it really does is give the BlackBerry 10 access to the same quality of content that rafts of other Android and Apple devices already have; it's merely catching up, not moving ahead. Given how far BlackBerry's devices have fallen out of popular favour, it's quite possible that nothing, ever, could make them cool again in consumers' eyes; a better-yet-still-not-top-tier app store is nowhere near enough to do so.

Still, this may help level the playing field for the BlackBerry 10, at least against some of the lower-tier smartphone makers. With devices increasingly becoming near-interchangeable delivery platforms for a common universe of shared apps (thanks to Android technology), BlackBerry now looks better positioned to lure some customers, provided it can continue to offer a relatively attractive price point. This hardly positions BlackBerry up with the market leaders again – indeed, far from it. But when your market share is less than 1 per cent, it wouldn't take much to generate meaningful growth.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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