SAN FRANCISCO -- After two months of lying dormant, the $150 million BlackBerry Partners Fund designed to stimulate developer interest in Research In Motion's ( RIMM) BlackBerry device is showing signs of life. In the next few weeks, the fund will announce its first investments in three to four companies that are looking to create applications for the BlackBerry platform, says Kevin Talbot, RBC vice president and co-manager of the BlackBerry Partners Fund. The fund, announced on May 12, has RIM as a limited partner and is being managed by JLA Ventures and RBC Venture Partners. It is targeting investments in the $2 million to $5 million range, although there are many early-stage opportunities where the need for capital could be even smaller, Talbot says. The announcement should help soothe critics and BlackBerry fans who have been left wondering about the funds' status since it was launched. Since the fund was launched, little information has come from RIM or RBC. The fund's bare-bones Web site has little but a link to a press release and a generic e-mail address. "This is not a good sign," says Carmi Levy, senior vice president, strategic consulting for AR Communications. "In the context of what RIM's competitors are doing to establish their own developer communities, it represents a potential threat to the BlackBerry platform's continued strength if it is left unchecked." Meanwhile, RIM's most feared rival, Apple ( AAPL), has steadily been building up the buzz for its iPhone App store that allows third-party software makers to create and distribute applications for the iPhone.
In March, Apple launched the iFund, a $100 million iPhone developers fund managed by the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The iFund has announced at least two investments, the first of which was in the mobile social networking company Pelago. Last month, it invested in the gaming startup ngmoco, which has former Electronic Arts executive Neil Young as its CEO. Both RIM and Apple already have a framework in place to help distribute applications for their phones. But the developers fund is the first time the two companies are backing efforts to offer monetary support to software makers to spur innovation for their platforms. The battle of the funds is also significant because most industry watchers see the availability of attractive applications as a sales driver for a device and ultimately the reason why a phone will retain users. BlackBerry Partners Fund's Talbot says the unexpectedly large response from developers to the fund threw operations out of gear but says it is now back on track. "Since the fund was announced, we have been deluged with opportunities," he says. "We have lagged a little bit behind because of that." So far, the BlackBerry Partners Fund has reviewed more than 1,500 investment opportunities, and it says it hopes to announce its picks soon. "It is clearly a very exciting and dynamic market," says Talbot. Most of the funds' investments are likely to be in North America, with a few in Canada, Europe and Israel.
And there's a new Web site on the way. On Aug. 15, the BlackBerry Partners Fund plans to have a redesigned Web site to explain the application process for interested developers, offer information on the team managing the fund and provide information on how to contact the fund's members. The fund is focusing on investments in areas such as mobile commerce, enterprise applications, communications technologies, social networking, media and entertainment, lifestyle and personal productivity and location-aware services to enhance navigation and mapping. Although Research In Motion is a limited partner in the fund, the investments will not just be for applications for the BlackBerry platform. Developers will be encouraged to make programs and services available for other mobile platforms such as Nokia's ( NOK) Symbian and Microsoft's ( MSFT) Windows Mobile. "Research In Motion provides a lot of strategic and technical support to the fund," says Talbot. "But the fund is independent from them." RIM is not on the investment committee of the fund, and the fund has the freedom to operate and invest in the opportunities it sees, he says. But RIM will not be left entirely out of the process. When the fund makes an investment in a company, it will become a member of the BlackBerry Alliance Program. The program is RIM's framework for offering marketing and development support for independent software makers. That may not be enough, says Levy. With Apple raising the stakes with its iFund, RIM and the BlackBerry Partners Fund need get more aggressive in courting developers, he says
"Silence won't cut it," he says. "RIM needs to beat the bushes to get large numbers of coders excited about building their businesses by developing software for the BlackBerry platform." Talbot hopes BlackBerry's growth and popularity will attract developers. At the end of the quarter, the total BlackBerry subscriber account base was over 16 million, and the company already has an ecosystem of 1000 software developers, he says. And it's still too early to call the game, says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director for Jupiter Research. "It's far, far too early to claim the victory for anyone," he says. "Unlike the PC desktop market, we are not seeing one dominant mobile platform." "There are a lot of BlackBerrys out there, and funds and investments are only one part of the motivation to support a platform," says Gartenberg. As can be seen by the thousands of programs in the iPhone's app store, developers are happy to create software for a device they find attractive, even without funding. Shares of RIM closed up $6.50, or 5.1%, to $133.75 Friday. During the week, the company launched its much-awaited BlackBerry bold smartphone in Austria and Germany and is expected to bring it to North America next month. RIM's stock is up about 17.6% since the beginning of the year, while Apple is down about 13%. Handset makers Motorola ( MOT) and Nokia have lost 40% and 27.6% respectively this year.