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BlackBerry 10 apps and the Android factor

The new BlackBerry 10 OS has kicked off with about 70,000 apps – and it will have 100,000 by the time handsets launch in the US next month, if you believe what BlackBerry CMO Frank Boulben said in a Q&A at the BlackBerry 10 launch. How does a new OS get to such heights so swiftly?

Well, about 40 per cent of those are Android apps, BlackBerry vice president Martyn Mallick said at another Q&A, also at the BlackBerry 10 launch. While he didn't do the following sum himself, 40 per cent of 70,000 is about 28,000 Android apps running on BlackBerry 10 right now.

BlackBerry UX designer Don Lindsay explained how Android apps get onto BlackBerry 10, with its different, gesture-based interface. First of all, you can't just load an Android APK into a BlackBerry phone. Application developers must use the BlackBerry 10 SDK to "wrap" their Android code up in a BlackBerry-friendly form. The SDK translates Android idioms into BlackBerry world: For instance, it maps the Android "menu" button to an up-swipe gesture, and the android "back" button to a back-swipe gesture.

Just wrapping up Android apps is an easy way to fill up a store, but it isn't BlackBerry's goal, Mallick said. That's good, because when you find Android apps on BlackBerry 10, they look odd, with dialog boxes and other UI elements that don't look quite right on the BlackBerry Z10 (see the image below). They run smoothly, but they look a little awkward. So Android compatibility needs to be a crutch here, not a mainstay.

BlackBerry agrees. Only truly native apps are eligible for BlackBerry's $10,000 (£6,300) bounty program, and top developers are strongly encouraged to create native apps. That's resulted in 90 per cent of the apps from "top app partners" being native, Mallick noted.

"From the beginning, our focus has been to get native applications built for BlackBerry 10," Mallick said.

How BlackBerry picks its apps

BlackBerry has an uphill climb ahead of it. Apple's iOS has more than 800,000 apps and Android has 700,000. Even Windows Phone passed the 100,000 mark long ago.

To try to even the score, BlackBerry is targeting the top 100 to 200 apps in terms of usage in each of the countries it serves, Mallick said. Apparently BlackBerry has teams in each country identifying apps and knocking on doors to try to get popular app developers to write for the platform.

"There are three components to it. One is the statistical analysis – month by month, who are the top downloads on competing platforms," Mallick said. "The second one is looking at ComScore data to say, what are the brands and services that are getting attention? The third is what I call gut feel: They live in these markets, and can say hey, we know what we see."

The BlackBerry 10 launch event spotlighted well-known games like Asphalt 7: Heat, Jetpack Joyride, and Angry Birds; news apps including The Economist and The New York Times; business apps like SAP, communication apps like Skype and WhatsApp, and many more.

That said, there are a slew of super-popular apps I can name off the top of my head that weren't in the BlackBerry 10 preview. Streaming video apps were a weak area – there’s no Netflix, for example. Instagram is another big name which is missing, and there are plenty of others.

Mallick promised that many more apps will appear in BlackBerry World by the time the Z10 handset launches in the US in March.

He said: "A lot of partners were able to hit a date of January 30, but frankly, some other partners have other schedules… what you see in the store today doesn't reflect what's going to be there at availability of the devices [in the US]."

For more BlackBerry related articles, have a read of our analysis piece, BlackBerry: A new start or the beginning of the end? – and also our spec comparison of the BlackBerry Z10 vs. Apple iPhone 5.