RIM CEO Thorsten Heins holding the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha handset.
(Credit: Joseph Hanlon/CNET Australia)
After RIM's BlackBerry OS 10 reveal this week, most tech pundits are obsessed with the question of whether RIM has enough to offer with BB 10 to reclaim the hearts and minds of the fans who have recently deserted them. Many believe that the innovations announced are too little, too late, but I've heard enough this week to think otherwise.
RIM has been on the ropes for several years now, accused of moving too slowly to keep pace with the ever-shifting smartphone landscape. BlackBerry 10 is the change of direction that the company needed to make three or four years ago, but didn't. From the little I've been allowed to see, the system is fast, slick, gesture-based and attractive. It reconsiders the way we interact with a complex stream of information on a device designed to be held in one hand.
Winning me over means very little in the long run, though, and RIM has an uphill battle to convince the two camps that really matter. Firstly, its customers, and, perhaps more importantly, developers, which RIM needs to convince to fill the BlackBerry App World void with thousands upon thousands of apps that complement the basic services that BlackBerry 10 will provide. This is the same dilemma that any company starting a new mobile OS would face; where you need apps to attract customers, and customers to attract app developers.
Building the bridge
RIM's answer to this conundrum is to do everything possible to make porting existing apps to the BlackBerry 10 platform as easy as possible. With a smaller install base than Android and iOS, it's unlikely to have major developers working exclusively on BlackBerry products, but by building the bridge for devs, RIM can help see some of the marquee apps on the other platforms make their way to BlackBerry 10. RIM's Android App player on the PlayBook, for example, means that Android app developers can move their apps to the new ecosystem with very little work, and this means that the apps will only need minor tweaks in the future to be ready for BlackBerry 10 devices.
"Enticing [developers] to the platform is about audience and monetisation ... but it's also about the technology and how easy it is, what kind of investment do they have to make to take something they have made for another platform and port it across," said Chris Smith, RIM's vice president of Application Platform and Tools.
Speaking with developers at BlackBerry World, the refrain was consistent; that the process of transferring their apps to the PlayBook OS (and BlackBerry 10 by extension) would be dead easy — a couple of hours' work, in the case of some native apps.
"For gaming, it should be a few hours of work," Smith said, "because the low layers of platform are very standards-oriented. Game developers work on those standards, and then they have the last little bit of work to deploy [their game] to Android or iOS or BlackBerry."
It's also interesting to note that the PlayBook shares hardware kinship with the iPhone, with both using PowerVR graphics processors. This gives iOS developers with graphics-intensive apps and games another significant shortcut.
Marmalade is a UK-based company offering cross-platform development tools to many big-name companies, such as gaming giant Square Enix, which has added support to its tool for the PlayBook OS and BlackBerry 10, alongside iOS, Android and others. Marmalade CEO Alex Caccia believes that BlackBerry 10 has what it takes to be a successful development platform for his customers, because of the power of the system itself, and also the way that RIM manages the system, the hardware and the app store. This managed approach diminishes the risk of piracy, which is a major concern for big-name developers, especially on the Android platform.
"Our technology is being used by companies like Activision and EA, who have billion-dollar brands, and they want to be absolutely sure that their brands are going to be protected," Caccia said.
Visibility on app stores is another major consideration for developers, and a reason why BlackBerry is becoming a popular target for new apps. With a comparatively lower number of apps available for the PlayBook, devs are finding, in some instances, that their apps are downloaded more to PlayBooks than on other platforms. This is great news for RIM, though considering that IT reported a steep 264 per cent increase in app submissions for Q1 2012, this advantage might be short lived.
For all of this developer love, there are still a number of heavy hitters missing from the App World. Amazon is yet to deliver a Kindle app for the PlayBook, Google apps are notably absent and Skype is nowhere to be seen. There are politics associated with all three of these examples, but, for many of RIM's potential customers, these apps and tools are as important to the mobile-computing experience as email and a calendar, and it will be up to RIM to make sure that they have these companies on-board the BlackBerry train by the time BB 10 is released.
With app devs onside, RIM has half a chance. It still has to win over customers, and it will take some very clever marketing to do that, but if future BlackBerry 10 feature announcements can match those that we've seen already, RIM should have some decent material for billboards and bus shelters. Plus, it will launch the platform with tens of thousands of apps ready to download, thanks to the interest it has generated through the PlayBook OS. It's difficult to say how the market will respond once BlackBerry 10 devices are released — Windows Phone sets a grim scene — but the pieces certainly seem in place for RIM at this stage.
Joseph Hanlon travelled to BlackBerry World as a guest of Research In Motion.