The highest-rated application in the PlayBook app marketplace is called Flashlight. It has no remarkable features – loading it simply brings up a brightly lit white screen.
That it should be a PlayBook bestseller illustrates one of the most serious drawbacks of Research In Motion Ltd.'s flagship tablet. Almost a year after the tablet's debut, and nearly two months after a major overhaul of its operating system, RIM still struggles to lure third-party app developers.
While Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems boast hundreds of thousands of tablet-specific apps, the PlayBook still lags well behind, despite RIM's attempts to make it easier for app developers to build software for the tablet.
"I think among big businesses in general, there's a lack of demand to be on the device," said Kunal Gupta, CEO of app-development firm Polar Mobile. "RIM has definitely lowered the barriers to entry for PlayBook developers, but they need to drive demand from large companies – it doesn't matter how many guys in their basement are developing PlayBook apps."
For RIM, the PlayBook app challenge is particularly important because it is a prelude to another, even more important battle. Next month, the company will begin giving developers prototype smartphones running BlackBerry 10 – the newest iteration of RIM's smartphone operating system, on which the company's survival largely depends. If RIM is unable to get big-name app developers excited about building apps for the PlayBook – whose software is similar to BlackBerry 10 – it may have an equally difficult time getting apps for its new smartphones.
"Ninety-five per cent of the app development process" for BlackBerry 10 smartphones will likely resemble the PlayBook app development process, said Sina Sojoodi, product development principal at Toronto-based Xtreme Labs. "I personally think the upcoming BlackBerry 10 devices could be miniature versions of the PlayBook."
Still, Mr. Sojoodi notes the success or failure of the PlayBook won't necessarily determine the fate of RIM's new smartphones, just as poor Android-based tablet sales haven't affected the success of Android-based smartphones.
And RIM has made some progress on the app front: When the PlayBook first came out a year ago, there were only a handful of functioning apps for the tablet on RIM's app store. Today, there are about 15,000 PlayBook-specific apps – far fewer than Apple and Google, but a significant improvement in just a few months.
It has also made it easier for app developers to build software for the PlayBook, including allowing them to port their Android-based apps over to the PlayBook easier.
Mr. Sojoodi notes that when his team tried to repurpose one of their Android-based apps to the PlayBook, it took only a couple of hours – lightning speed by developer standards. "We had an app that was running on the PlayBook that we literally grabbed off an Android tablet, and the [user interface]was perfect," he said.
Still, many app developers haven't bothered to do so, given the lacklustre PlayBook sales.
RIM has lured some big-name apps to the PlayBook, however, such as Angry Birds, Evernote and Poynt. Hoping to show off the PlayBook's capabilities, RIM has also subsidized free downloads of some high-end gaming apps, including a 400-megabyte first-person shooter that takes advantage of the tablet's graphics-processing abilities.
And although RIM has been unable to convince developers of some well-known apps to develop versions for the PlayBook, third-party knock-offs have found their way onto the app store, such as "Fruits and Ninja" instead of the wildly popular Fruit Ninja games.
Much of RIM's success in reviving its PlayBook app store comes from a renewed focus on app developers in the past few months to allow the use of more programming languages and quicker re-purposing of apps meant for other devices.
As a result, more developers are building apps for the PlayBook. According to RIM, there was a 240-per-cent increase in PlayBook apps submitted during the most recent quarter, compared to the prior quarter.
But RIM's push to get as many developers as possible building as many apps as possible for the PlayBook has had some unintended negative effects.
Before the launch of the PlayBook operating system update in February, RIM offered BlackBerry developers a free PlayBook in exchange for apps. The offer worked very well, with 10,000 new developers joining the BlackBerry ecosystem and 7,000 new apps submitted.
However it's debatable just how worthwhile some of those apps turned out to be. Many of the PlayBook apps appear to have been coded in an hour or two – such as the flashlight app and another that does nothing but play the Spanish national anthem.
And while Apple has been criticized in the past for an overly stringent apps review process, RIM appears to suffer from the opposite problem. A tougher app review policy, for example, would likely have caught the PlayBook app that offers users a typo-riddled, almost certainly unauthorized download of all the books in the popular Twilight series.
RIM's next big chance to entice potential PlayBook developers will be the BlackBerry World conference next month in Orlando. Several developers said RIM has been reluctant to talk about its next-generation products – of which the PlayBook is the first – for fear of affecting sales of its current crop of smartphones. However, that will change next month, when RIM puts the focus firmly on BlackBerry 10 smartphones, hoping the brand-new devices will get developers excited about building apps for RIM's phones – and its tablets.