BlackBerry App World Tour and Impressions

Apple's App Store concept has essentially colonised the idea of mobile app distribution, with every major smartphone platform rushing to open their own. RIM's takeoff, BlackBerry App World, launched yesterday for the US, UK and Canada. How is it?

The Scope
In a single metaphor, if the iPhone App Store is Whole Foods, RIM's App World is more like the food section of a Target—it does some of the things the App Store does decently enough, but it doesn't match the breadth and depth or the polish that makes you feel good about having spent $US8 on a bag of local handmade sustainably farmed artisan organic granola.

The grocery metaphor actually extends a bit further: While Whole Foods can be your exclusive grocery store, Target's food section isn't likely to be the only place you shop—similarly, the App Store is the exclusive (legal) place to get iPhone apps, while you've always been able to grab your BlackBerry apps from anywhere you want. So App World is more about creating a convenient centralized point to funnel the BlackBerry platform's already vast developer community and software through—not to create a brand new ecosystem, like the App Store did. Still, increased interest and development will probably happen as a result. They've got a few hundred applications in the store to start, which isn't too shabby.

The Shopping Experience
It takes the iPhone App Store and turns it into a very BlackBerry experience—lots of scrolling text lists, tapping the BlackBerry menu button to access shortcuts and secondary functions (like reviews), or to go to the top level App World menu. It works well with the trackball, even if it isn't as fun to browse as the iPhone's App Store. (I haven't tested App World on a Storm, but if it's exactly the same, the UI would suck on a touch phone.) Even though you'll run into tons of progress bars as you move around the store, it does load fairly quickly, even over EDGE.

I wanted to avoid comparisons to the iPhone's App Store, but RIM so clearly modeled theirs on it, it hurts. You even have basically the same set of icons on the bottom as the App Store: Search, Top Downloads, Categories and My World (which lists your own apps). Instead of a "featured" button, featured apps take up most of the screen, with one app displayed at a time, dominated by an Apple-style app icon (Bloomberg's especially). It's nice, but not especially intuitive if you want to quickly glance at the list of featured apps.

Payment for paid apps is clumsier, as Walt Mossberg notes—you have to link it up to a PayPal account. Granted, BlackBerry doesn't exactly have iTunes already sitting there for a simplified system, like Apple does. It would be very cool if it could be linked up to, say, an Amazon account, where I could seamlessly pay for apps along with music, movies, books and whatever else they'll sell digitally.

Downloading and installing free apps is hitch-free, just click and boom, you're downloading. Then you get the usual OK/Run confirmation when it finishes. Downloading and installing the Ticketmaster app over Wi-Fi with an average 5Mbps downstream according to Speedtest—a mere 171KB app—took about 45 seconds. The 1.2MB Google Talk took about a minute to download, and another 20 seconds to install. Over EDGE, I had more than timeout downloading a larger app like Facebook.

The app manager screen feels a lot like Firefox's download manager, actually. Some apps tie up your phone while they're installing (at least on our test Curve 8900), but usually, not for very long. Uninstalling apps—or installing a new version to replace an old version—however, is a pain. When I uninstalled the Facebook app, I had to restart the phone! And when I installed a new version of Google Talk, I had to restart again. What bizarro world is this, Windows 98?

Other Gripes
Some of the more prominent BlackBerry apps also appear to be missing from store—notably, TwitterBerry. Presumably, this will change over time as more apps pop up and App World becomes the definitive clearinghouse for BlackBerry apps.

The UI could use some fireworks stuffed in its stuffy pants—for the most part, I like the BlackBerry UI, but I feel like it needs a more dynamic style to make app shopping fun. You guys want me to spend money, right? (Making it literally easier to spend money would help with that as well.) Oh yes, a desktop version would be nice too—a gripe we had with Android as well.

Overall, it works well enough—it's definitely easier than scouring far-flung corners of the internet to find the apps you're looking for, provided they're available in App World. But there's definitely room for it become a more unique, smoother and sexier experience. [BlackBerry]

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