Can't Buy Me Love -- but Maybe a Few Thousand Apps?

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It's never a good sign when you have to pay people to be your friends. But that seems to be the standard friend-finding technique in the smartphone industry these days. It's Astroturfing gone wild.

This doesn't apply if you're Apple (NAS: AAPL) or Google (NAS: GOOG) , of course. iPhone and Android are the two leading smartphone platforms by a wide margin, and they have quite robust app markets, with about half a million apps each. But once you drop below that very elite layer, you start seeing desperation in the bit players' eyes.

Can't buy me love (or friendship)
Research In Motion (NAS: RIMM) will live or die with the fate of its BlackBerry 10 platform. Based on the acquired QNX operating system and delayed way too often, it's a bit of a Hail Mary pass. And the app store for that platform is a barren wasteland, with just 10,000 apps on tap and only one tablet available to consume them. (The old-school BlackBerry app world for current-generation smartphones boasts about 60,000 apps.)


And this is where "buying your friends" comes in. To give Android developers some incentive to displace some of the tumbleweeds infesting that store, RIM recently offered up a free PlayBook tablet to anyone converting Android apps to the BlackBerry format. Some 7,000 developers took the company up on the offer, including yours truly.

That influx of apps is a drop in the bucket next to the hundreds of thousands of apps in competing markets. Moreover, giving away one free tablet -- which also is available at retail if you really wanted one -- will draw in only tiny developer houses. Again, like yours truly. Even if you assume that RIM's conversion tools produce perfect BlackBerry apps and don't introduce any new bugs and quirks along the way, the big boys don't care one bit for a single piece of hardware worth a few hundred bucks anyhow. So what you get is 7,000 mostly low-budget apps, full of bugs and bad design. Yeah, like mine.

To follow up on that questionable tactic, RIM will hand out 2,000 free smartphones at a developer confab in May. This effort is a little different, because it involves getting prototype hardware in the hands of developers who really can't buy it anywhere else. "The experience on this device from a consumer's perspective is not in any way indicative of what the final experience on BlackBerry 10 will be like," RIM's VP of developer relations told Bloomberg. So this time, you might get a more serious horde of programmers testing their apps on the as-yet unreleased platform.

This makes some sense. But RIM is still trying to storm the Bastille armed with a spork and two packets of ketchup. These giveaways won't make a significant difference to BlackBerry 10's lacking app store. Nor will it boost BlackBerry sales in the long run.

We don't need no education
Oh, but the Canadian firm isn't alone.

In Finland, Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) and Nokia (NYS: NOK) are investing some $24 million in a mobile-application development program at a local university. The thinking here should be familiar: Give people a reason to write Windows Phone apps, and maybe we'll be able to sell a few handsets. This is just a larger, more ambitious, and generally benign version of that strategy.

But that will probably help Finland's software developers more than it helps Microsoft and its chosen hardware paladin. Even a very large college program can only churn out a few hundred developers a year. And it'll be years before Microsoft sees any graduates from the new app-maker school.

Give Microsoft some points for planning ahead, I guess. Nokia is getting major brownie points with the Finnish government, media, and people here, but that doesn't move a lot of handsets.

So Nokia is the only company that comes out looking smart at all, and not for the reasons Microsoft was hoping.

Of course, there's a small chance that one of these efforts might spark some freakish success story that turns the mobile world on its head entirely. But chances are, you'll forget all about these grassroot-ish desperation plays in a couple of years, and none of the participants will have gained much from the experience.

In the meantime, the smartphone and tablet revolution will continue apace, with Nokia, Microsoft, and RIM largely on the sidelines. But the biggest winners will play every side of the field.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorAnders Bylundowns shares of Google but holds no other position in any of the companies mentioned. Check outAnders' holdings and bio, or follow him onTwitterandGoogle+. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Microsoft, Nokia, Apple, and Google and creating bull call spread positions in Apple and Microsoft. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.We Fools don't all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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