The first folks who will get a chance to see if Research in Motion(s RIMM) will be able to arrest its steep decline in the smartphone market will be software developers who attend its BlackBerry Jam conference in May. But it’s a little unclear what they’ll be getting when they receive those BlackBerry 10 handsets.
The company will give away around 2,000 handsets in May, it told Bloomberg Friday. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the BlackBerry 10 handsets could be RIM’s most important product generation ever–as its U.S. market share crumbles under the weight of unsold stodgy BlackBerry 7 devices–and seeding developers is an important step in building momentum.
However, I’m not sure what RIM expects to accomplish, based on its statements. RIM told Bloomberg that the devices it plans to give away in May are “not in any way indicative of what the final experience on BlackBerry 10 will be like.” In fact, RIM said features as basic as the screen appearance and navigation could change substantially between May and “later this year,” when the new devices are supposed to launch.
So why would anyone spend time building an application around a user interface and navigation design that may never see the light of day? Sure, there are some general things to be learned from developing for the QNX operating system (now known as BlackBerry 10), and judging by the lack of activity the average mobile developer hasn’t spent a lot of time with RIM’s Playbook. And it’s also probably a wise investment in goodwill: people like free stuff.
But mobile software developers who are quite busy with iOS(s AAPL) and Android(s GOOG) apps are going to need more than a free phone that won’t bear any resemblance to the phone that potential consumers will buy if they’re going to consider doing business with RIM. Even if what they see in May blows their minds, they’ll know that it’s going to change.