About 20 years ago I was managing the Canadian operation of Quarterdeck, publisher of the very popular QEMM-386 memory manager for DOS. During that period Microsoft decided they needed to upgrade DOS to include some memory management features in DOS 5 and later DOS 6. Somehow the genius developer team at Quarterdeck always managed to stay a couple of versions ahead of the DOS feature set. But the experience also led me to meet Microsoft’s Canadian Product Manager for DOS, Alec Saunders. We jousted about our products but I also came to appreciate Alec as a respected player at Microsoft.
When I went to Los Angeles a year or two later to work with Quarterdeck on a corporate restructuring I needed to have meetings at Microsoft Redmond (don’t ask about the business reason – cause I forgot). I learned that Alec had moved to Redmond. One call to him ensured that I had the meetings I needed; we continued to cross paths as he moved on to become the first product manager for Internet Explorer (yes, Quarterdeck had a great browser – with tabs – but did not understand the Internet culture of beta testing), and we would always meet up at Comdex, amongst other shows.
Alec returned to Canada in 2000 where he worked with a successful Real Time Operating System company, called QNX – a company about which I had learned in the mid-80’s during my frequent trips to Ottawa. A year later he took up a business development position with a telecom equipment vendor. About four years later we met up again as he was considering the launch of a start-up that eventually became known as iotum with a conferencing product called CalliFlower. You will find many posts here about the evolution of CalliFlower. For about a year Alec hosted his daily SquawkBox conference call when a crowd of up to 20 to 30 enthusiasts would talk about IP-communications industry issues, meet several of the players as featured guests and contribute to the development of Calliflower’s feature set. During this time Alec gained experience developing applications for Facebook and the iPhone.
What I really came to appreciate is not only how well Alec understood the technology behind today’s IP-based communications and wireless technology but also about how well he understood the business and personal communications issues related to building a strong developer program for a platform. The combination of his Microsoft, QNX, Versatel and iotum start-up experience made him a frequent reference point for not only obtaining background on issues but also, often, my posts.
A few months ago I learned that Alec had commenced some consulting with RIM covering business development activities involving developer relations. I also was certainly having my own questions about how RIM was proceeding not only with their BlackBerry partners but also with the Playbook. It was pretty obvious that RIM was struggling on that front, especially when it came to developer relations. Alec could bring a lot to the table for RIM.
Towards the end of July I made a Skype call to Alec only to learn that he was on his first day on the job as Vice-President, Developer Relations for RIM. His initial focus is on the PlayBook, working with the QNX team in his home city of Ottawa (but probably now a frequent commuter to RIM Headquarters in Waterloo). Andy’s post yesterday made this public; the only previous external clues that something had changed were his occasional inquiries on Twitter and Facebook about how to use a MacBook Pro; it can now be disclosed why these queries were arising.
If RIM continues to hire experienced professionals of Alec’s caliber, it only improves RIM’s chances for success built around the QNX platform. Having been aware of QNX for over 25 years I learned that they have the most robust, crash-free operating system available – you can fly an airplane with it. It has several features that support true multitasking on multi-core processor platforms. QNX has a most compelling customer base as exemplified here. The challenge here is to leverage QNX’s key features and RIM’s historical enterprise pedigree to bring about a Playbook that takes off in directions that the iPad cannot touch. Suffice it to say there is a path to follow and it does not rely on being a direct competitor to the iPad. Is this a hint?.
Gizmodo defines Alec’s challenge here:
BlackBerry App World is like the sad broken-down amusement park your dad takes you to because when he was a kid it was the only place that had a log flume. You got behind with devs. You got beat. Get them back. Microsoft’s doing it—slowly, surely—with Windows Phone, and you can too. It’s going to take money, sure, but considering how many wasted investments you’ve been willing to make recently you might as well splurge on something useful.
You’ve got time before QNX makes its phone debut. Use that time to line up as many major devs as you can. Don’t just make BlackBerry a QWERTY storefront for Android apps. We have that already. It’s called Droid.
Bottom line: A strong developer relations program is only one critical component to RIM’s success. While Alec brings a lot to the table, RIM’s biggest challenge is to quickly build a disruptive platform that can become a market leader in its own niche.