The PreCentral Interview: Richard Kerris, VP of Worldwide Developer Relations | webOS Nation

The PreCentral Interview: Richard Kerris, VP of Worldwide Developer Relations

by Dieter Bohn Mon, 28 Feb 2011 11:10 am EST

Back at Mobile World Congress we had an opportunity to sit down with Richard Kerris, the new VP of Worldwide Developer Relations for the Palm Global Business Unit. He has some pretty big shoes to fill after the departure of Ben Galbraith and Dion Almaer but, from what we can tell, Kerris has the combination of pragmatism and personality to do just that (for the record, he only had one pair of shoes on). 

Our talk ranged from the difficult SDK transition that webOS developers face in 2011 to how HP plans to bring on big-name developers to the opportunity in Enterprise. One thing that Kerris did clarify for us is that HP does not intend to just make apps for other companies and hand them over as previously reported - instead they will have "SWAT teams" of in-house webOS developers they can send out to companies to assist their development efforts.

Kerris is not intimidated by the Microsoft-Nokia partnership, saying that he doesn't "see much compelling in the Windows Phone-Nokia environment from a developers' standpoint." While Nokia CEO Stephen Elop has declared that it's a three-horse race between Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone, Kerris obviously demurs, pointing out that webOS offers a less-fragmented solution than what he anticipates Windows Phone will become.

In the Enterprise space, Kerris is also not intimidated by BlackBerry's foothold. He believes that TouchPad will have the necessary security features at launch to make it acceptable to corporate customers, that HP's enterprise inroads will lead to significant opportunity, and that for Enterprise developers "we have a way better offering than you do with BlackBerry."

For those in the webOS developer fold, Kerris didn't try to gloss over the fact that the transition from Mojo development to Enyo Development may be bumpy for some, but "We’re going to do whatever we can to help developers through that transition." 

There's plenty more (including his favorite webOS app, at least on the day we asked). Grab a cup of coffee (it's a long one, folks) and read on!

PreCentral: I feel like the thing to tell developers that have current webOS apps right now, is that the transition from Mojo to Enyo, it seems like it’s going to be a little shaky.

Richard Kerris: It is.

PreCentral: There’s nothing for it other than to say…

RK: We’re trying desperately, internally to see what we can do to remedy that situation, because Enyo provides a new framework, a better framework and again, it’s not that we’re in a sprint; we’re in a marathon. And if you look at what it buys you over time it going to be way better off. Like I said, the first initial road is going to be a bit bumpy. And we recognize that, and I’d rather tell them that up front, and I’m pushing on engineering to solve the problem one way or another. Hopefully they will. We’ve got some things that we’re kicking around right now, but rather than say what they are, I want to make sure that they’re solid.

[...] We’re going to do whatever we can to help developers through that transition. In fact, that’s helping them with marketing, helping them transition their app and whatever that takes.

[...] I’m confident we’re going to have a solution. Is it going to be a smooth easy going thing? Probably not. But it’ll be better than what it was, and the payoff in the long run will be better even then.

PreCentral: The accusation’s out there that you’re abandoning the current webOS developer base, “Screw you guys, we have something new and faster.” I don’t really buy that.

RK: Not at all.

PreCentral: But I am curious, what other stuff are you doing to bring on new developers, to Enyo directly. So you’re not just catering to the base, but going straight to the new guys. And I’m specifically wondering about the big name developers and partnerships.

RK: So there’s a couple questions in there, let me start from the first one. I think our current developers are phenomenal. I’ve had such a great welcome, and a vocal one, since joining the company, that shows me a passion and energy I have not seen in many years of working with developers. They’re adamant that I understand the situation, and I’ve been very upfront the best thing I could be doing right now is listening to what they have going on and what they’ve gone through to get where they’re at. But that passion and intensity has got to carry forward with us. They are our best evangelists. If I can get us to do right by those existing developers who have hung in there through thick and thin, they’re going to go out and tell even more developers, and they’re going to be our best army that we can have for expanding our user base at the small company level.

Our relationship that we have with HP, and what putting webOS on the Windows environment, can hope to do for us, can actually give us a footprint bigger than anybody else that’s out there. Now, we’ve got to figure out what that looks like and how that’s going to unfold, but if you can conceive of webOS being on every PC that HP ships, then you’re talking tens of millions of people that are going to have a webOS client that can run your app, somebody else’s app.

Now I have an argument to go talk to the big companies who are already drained on resources in other environments and say “Look at our opportunity that we present to you,” the business case is going to help justify that. I don’t think we’re going to have a problem getting those big apps to see that.

If you’re an imaging application, and you want to know that you’re talking to printers and you’re talking to the imaging environments and professionals that are out there and now you say “Look, I’m going to be on printers and on the desktop computers and laptop computers,” you’d be a fool not to look at this environment and say “Wow, supporting this is not a whole lot of rocket science, it’s just an addition,” an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or,’ to what they’re currently doing today. But the upside could be phenomenal.

PreCentral: The PC specifically, I have a hunch of how you guys are going to make this work. [...] So it’s interesting, because in a way that you’re going to be going to developers and offering them a solution that instead of telling them you’re developing a Windows app, because they’ll run it on webOS on the PC and on mobile at the same time. Is that going to cause tension? Do you talk to Windows developers?

RK: We’re not looking at it as an either/or. It’s more of an addition. You can use Enyo and develop and deploy on multiple platforms. Competitive platforms. So it’s a really beautiful environment for developers to work in. I don’t think we’re going to see Microsoft put Office on webOS, but I do think the people who use Office will have webOS apps running alongside it, and it would make sense. Because if you’re doing something and you’ve got a webOS thing that you want to tie into with Synergy with your other devices, why not? It’s a great add-on.

PreCentral: With PDK apps, is the framework that you can use any code, is that going to be the same with webOS 3 on the TouchPad?

RK: That’s the plan, that you can do PDK or webapp or hybrid of both.

PreCentral: This is me getting into technical talk, and I’m kind of stupid about this. When I look at Mojo code and I’m listening to the message that if you can do web stuff, you can do webOS stuff. I’m like “That makes sense. It looks like web code to me.” When I look at Enyo code, it does not look like web code. It looks like program, like JavaScript basically. Something a little bit more complicated than what we’re used to. Does Enyo change your message about who you’re targeting, how much you need to learn in order to develop for webOS?

RK: I’ve certainly not heard it been phrased as more difficult. Other modern web frameworks have gone exclusively to javascript as well - Sencha Touch, Cappuccino, etc. This is the new web. Web does not mean HTML markup.

Developers will still deal with markup when creating custom controls. This is more web and less webOS-specific than Mojo, and closer to the true promise of webOS. This will become more clear with an announcement we have teed up shortly.

PreCentral: It looks more elegant, and I’ve listened to you describe it and it seems to work better.

RK: The folks that I’ve talked to in the developer community, and I’ve talked to a lot even in the past couple of days, they all feel that there’s an elegance in the design of the framework, and there’s a capability that gives them a business advantage above and beyond just developing for one environment that we’ve actually taken into consideration. If you’re developing in Enyo and you want to deploy it on other devices, we allow you to do that.

PreCentral: Do you know if you’re going to be offering the new TouchPad Touch-to-Share [API]?

RK: Making that available for developers? That is our goal. Whether that’ll be in the initial release or not we’re still figuring out. One of the things that we are completely adamant about internally is everything we do is going to be done with tools that our available to developers. We are eating our own dog food. And even though it might not be day one that that capability is there, that is completely our intent. Look what you could do with that with game developers and stuff like that. I envision that there’s going to be a lot of cool stuff that developers will do with that.

PreCentral: [Will you use the] Veer or Pre 3?

RK: Pre 3. Although, I’ll probably be spoiled and have them all. I love the Veer as a hotspot and it’s small enough to be with me anywhere, but when I have work to do, on an Enterprise level, I think the Pre 3 is awesome. [...] That’s where I think our biggest competitive advantage is – the enterprise market.

PreCentral: I’m really glad you brought this up. I had a huge rant that I thought that late 2011 we would see the fight move from the consumer space to the enterprise space.

RK: Yeah, definitely. We know enterprise.

PreCentral: Android is finally going to get their stuff together, Apple is coming in, and RIM’s really vulnerable. What’s your story there? One of the things that holds companies to RIM, beyond they don’t want to take the time to transition away from [RIM's] Enterprise Servers, there’s also BBM, which is another issue, but then they also work a lot of custom apps. What’s your strategy for going after these enterprise companies?

RK: Our new big brother in this case knows enterprise pretty well. The largest and most relied-on enterpise company in the world is HP. And we are now aggressively meeting and discussing what our advantage is going to be in that competitive space. And we got a few things that have been written up already, but what we want to do is complete the picture. And then go make sure that we have all the right offerings there. But I think we have a way better offering than you do with BlackBerry.

With us, one development environment is all. Our goal is that if you’re going to develop on the Pre 3, it’ll work on the tablet. If you’re going to develop in the tablet, it’ll work on the Veer. So I think we’ve got a great value proposition there.

The issue we’ve got to solve from an enterprise perspective is security. So what are we going to do to make sure we have the most secure device in the industry? Solving the enterprise space with regards to building their own networks and then building apps on top of those networks. There’s a lot more web developers out there than there are BlackBerry developers out there. So if an enterprise is moving into that space, chances are they’re going to have a much better time building a development team around web technologies than they are going to building a team around anything else

PreCentral: How long do you think it will be before you can get the security story for webOS to a place where enterprise feels comfortable? I think that’s one of the reasons that the PlayBook doesn’t have an email client. They’re like “We can’t get it done quickly enough and get the security certifications for it in order to put it on the device,” so they’re tethering to the BlackBerry with that weird set-up. You guys aren’t doing that, but how quickly do you think you’re going to be able to get all that security up?

RK: Because of our experience with enterprise in HP, I think we’ll get there by the time of release. That’s why we’re not afraid to show email clients and things like that. That’s our intent, and if there was anything different then we would let people know ahead of time. We’re not going to try to pull the wool over people’s eyes, but we have the best experience enterprise company in the world behind us. If we can’t figure this out, I’m doubtful anyone can.

PreCentral: A developer wanted me to ask if you’re going to be offering hardware to developers before release so that they can test their apps.

RK: We’re definitely looking at what we can provide to developers ahead of release, whether it’s providing them the actual hardware or labs that they can come to and actually work on the hardware, we’ll have some sort of a solution. It depends on how our build process goes, but if we can’t provide hardware in developers’ hands, we’re going to do our best to provide labs that they can come to and work on those devices.

PreCentral: Can you tell me anything about this program that I read about where HP is developing apps directly and sort of giving it to companies?

RK: There was a bit of confusion. So, what we’re going to do is build what I call a “SWAT team.” A SWAT team is going to be some really great web and PDK developers that are part of our world. [...] By having this SWAT team internal, we’re going to develop sample code, but more importantly than that, we’re going to be able to deploy them out to developers who may not have the experience of our platform yet and we’ll airdrop them in to that developer and they’ll spend time with them. Not only training them on what they can do, but by hand showing them stuff they can do and then leaving it with the developer.

PreCentral: So it’s not that Hulu doesn’t have the time to make the app, so you’ll make the Hulu app and say “Now it’s yours.”

RK: No… that’s a short-lived strategy. Our strategy is train the trainer. And the better way of doing that is if you’re a developer, and your resources are strained right now because you’ve got two different platforms, and “I’d love to, but I just don’t have the resources.”

“Tell you what, we’re going to put somebody in there and help you out, they’ll get your team up and going. You’ll see the benefits of what we have to offer, and then we’ll back away - now it’s yours.” Now, from time-to-time they may develop some internal apps that we may want to showcase, and we’ll give those away and we’ll open source them and we’ll do whatever we can to provide that we can open source from an IP standpoint. The goal is to augment and embellish what’s going on out there, we would never want to compete with a developer.

[...] This is a strategy that I’ve used before and I’m very comfortable with it, and the developers that have worked with us in the past love it. It’s how to go from zero to a hundred in as fast a time as possible. I’m going to put some star players in the field and they’re going to help you and then they’ll head off and the developer keeps everything. It’s nice and clean.

PreCentral: I feel like you are the person in charge of making sure webOS succeeds or fails [in that he's in charge of getting developers on board]

RK: Ha! No.

PreCentral: Let me give the context. With the Nokia-Microsoft deal, Elop said “It’s a platform battle.” He once said it’s a three-horse race, which is funny. You want it to be at least a four horse race. Do you feel like going to easily overcome that? [...] These are the big guys and you’re not really worth [a developer's] time to go after?

RK: I don’t see much compelling in the Windows Phone-Nokia environment from developers’ standpoint.

PreCentral: Really?

RK: No, I think that there’s more exciting stuff happening in other areas, and its stuff that we can learn from and aspire to. I think that what we bring to the table is a much newer and from the ground up operating system built for the next generation of the web.

I don’t see my role as more or less important than anybody else that’s on our team. We all have a job to do, everybody knows what it is. I’m happy that there’s been so much attention on the developer community, but that starts with great tools and great products. Once you have those things, it’s getting the developers and getting the word out, and helping the developers be successful is how you do that. But if you don’t have great tools and operating system to start with, I don’t care what you have, you cant’ get out of the gate. I’ve talked to people using both Windows and Nokia, there are very few jumping up and down saying it’s the best thing ever.

PreCentral: Well, it’s not that bad. You can use some of the same tools you to develop for other platforms, like Xbox Live stuff, and there are the Silverlight tools.

RK: Sure, there’s nice things, but if you’re on Windows side: who’s going to get a better deal: Nokia or HTC or some other hardware manufacturer yet to be named?. If I’m a developer, I’m already wondering, “What’s the advantage to me?” I would have to support and test each hardware device… that gets costly.

PreCentral: It really depends on whether or not they can make good on their claim that they’re not going to fragment.

RK: They just announced a really big deal in front of a really big audience. If you don’t think Nokia’s gonna have some kind of advantage for that, then what did they do it for? Just to hang on? No, I think they’re going to try to make a play in order for them to stand out from the others. The problem is when you’re trying to serve so many clients out there, you have the inevitable problem that Android has: it’s really hard to provide the customer a consistent experience across all of your offerings. There are a lot of great phones out there, but not all of them run the exact same way – customers shouldn’t be the ones having to search for them.

That’s something that’s a problem from the customer point of view, and I think that that customer experience is going to be the thing that drives them to [the competition], whether that’s the experience at an enterprise level or at some level they want to be confident in what that ecosystem provides. Long term, I think we have a really good advantage that we have that ecosystem. Wide open, but if you’re buying our device, it’s our environment, you can be sure you’re going to get the best out of it. Confidence.

PreCentral: We haven’t talked about it much, but you say we’re not as fragmented as those other platforms, but the average user on our forums would say, “Yeah, you are now.” You’re going to have webOS 2.1 devices, or 2.0 devices, and you’ll have devices that can’t get past 1.4.5 that aren’t that old.

RK: That’s an inevitable bump, but I’ve been upfront about that. We’ve got to get past that to go forward. The question is: when you make a tough decision, you have to make it looking that you’re in a marathon, not a sprint. There’s always been times in technology’s history where you had to make a cut and not a pleasant one. But you have to make a cut in order to bring new technology and new hardware into the environment that goes with better support. So you can work really hard and spend all your resources being backwards compatible, or you can tell that group, “We’ll help you carry over that hurdle, but by doing so we’re going to be able to go much further and most important, much faster.” When people understand what that means, I have yet to find somebody who says it’s a bad ideaWe’re not out to make developers upset, we’re out to [make] developers successful. And there is a long road ahead of us, for everyone.

I love hearing from the developer community. If there’s stuff that we can do with a regular dialog it’s to make sure we’re not missing anything; the biggest goal I have right now is to hear and listen and learn from the developers who are out there and make sure that we are taking their thoughts into consideration as we plan and go forward with our products and technology.

[...] Everybody chases all the big developers that are out there, and certainly we want to work with them. However, five years ago, nobody knew who Rovio (Angry Birds) was, nobody knew who Twitter was, and very few knew who Facebook was. They were small developers that were able to go big. The world is full of a lot of those types of, things happening all the time I like to think that somewhere in the world right now there’s a kid that’s going to start being a programmer. I want him or her to be on our platform, I want them developing in our environment, and I want to help them be incredibly successful.

PreCentral: What do you think is the best kind of app, category of app, to make for webOS?

RK: I think it’s one that takes advantage of everything Synergy has to offer. Gaming, social, location-aware, augmented reality, all of those things mixing into together, I think that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg of what that is. We’re the only device out there that seamlessly integrates all the parts, we don’t make you plug into a computer when you use our devices. We don’t make you manually sync when you use our devices. With that in mind, we’re truly a cloud operating system. So what does that mean from a applications standpoint, what can you be assured of, whether it’s sharing high scores or interacting with someone, I venture to say that tying into Synergy is probably the key. I can’t wait to see what they do with it. The funnest part of my job is getting to see all the great stuff the developers come up with.

PreCentral: What’s your favorite app right now?

RK: It changes daily! I really like Bad Kitty, but now the Carbon guys sent me a note that “You ought check out Carbon!” Carbon is really nice. Ask me next week and I’ll have something else. We have over 6 thousand apps and we’re growing quickly. There’s lots to explore!

Thanks Richard for the interview! Thanks also to Derek Kessler for contributing to this story