With its future up for grabs, Research in Motion at its annual BlackBerry World conference next week will focus on simplifying development for its soon-to-be-unveiled BlackBerry 10 operating system. HTML5 is one key technology in that strategy to create a viable ecosystem of applications for a new generation of mobile devices expected to ship by year-end.
The simplicity is needed because BB10, based on a real time kernel acquired with RIM's buyout of QNX Software Systems in 2010, is a complete break with the software that runs on standard BlackBerry smartphones. Sales of those devices have been collapsing since the third quarter of 2010, and continue to do so, as RIM's recent fourth quarter earnings show. RIM sold just over 11 million smartphones, down 21% from the previous quarter, and 500,000 PlayBook tablets; quarterly revenue was $4.2 billion, or 19% less than the third quarter and 25% less than a year ago.
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HTML5 and RIM's larger development strategy will come into sharp focus at BlackBerry World in Orlando. This year, it includes the heavily promoted BlackBerry 10 Jam, an intensive, developer-focused agenda for the new operating system, which has not yet been released in final form.
"It's a bit of a challenge," says Tyler Lessard, formerly a RIM vice president in charge of the global developer program, and since October 2011 chief marketing officer at mobile security vendor Fixmo. "There's very little or no compatibility between the old and new operating systems. Existing apps can't be carried forward to QNX and BB 10. The question is, once the BlackBerry 10 smartphones launch, can RIM have an adequate catalog of apps?"
Next week, RIM will release four beta toolsets for BB10 development, allowing software writers that already have experience in Adobe Air, Android, and HTML to use those same skills to create applications for the PlayBook tablet and the new BB10-based phones that are due out later this year. That's a big pool of potential developers: but they have to be convinced that BlackBerry 10 apps can be competitive with those for Apple iOS and Google Android, and that there will be compelling mobile devices to run them.
"Some developers see it as a good opportunity; others are taking a wait and see approach," Lessard says.
The fourth beta toolset is a native software development kit for BB10, intended for high performance apps and mobile games. RIM will also hand out some number of a "limited edition prototype device" dubbed BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha so that developers can begin designing BB10 apps on something resembling a BB10 smartphone. (In January, the CrackBerry Website posted a photo that purports to show one of the new phones.)
The industry only recently began paying attention to RIM's HTML5 investment, and much of the online commentary sees it as a stop gap, a desperate bid to attract some interest until the full BB10 firmware is released along with the software-development kit for native apps.
On the contrary, insists Adam Stanley, senior application development consultant with RIM's BlackBerry Developer Relations group. "Our attempt is to provide an industry-leading mobile Web platform," he says.
In fact, RIM is now expanding and refining its HTML5 support, which began in 2010 with BlackBerry OS 6 after RIM bought Torch Mobile, a mobile browser company focused on the widely used open source Webkit browser platform. Since then, the BlackBerry browser has been repeatedly upgraded with more HTML 5 support, along with BlackBerry OS 7, and the PlayBook OS 1.0 and in February, Version 2.0. PlayBook OS is the QNX-based precursor to BB10. RIM's mobile browser for BlackBerry OS 7 current ranks in the middle of the pack at The HTML5 Test Website but the in-development BB10 browser outstrips all of them except for one, also in development.
The latest HTML5 additions in PlayBook OS 2.0 are no automatic assurance of high performing, well-behaved HTML5 features. One example is the inclusion of the Web Notifications API, previously only found on Firefox for Google's Chrome OS. This is a "killer" feature that enables "Web apps to communicate with the user anytime" via a "notification in the operating system from a webpage...," writes Max Firtman, a development trainer and author of, among others, "Programming the Mobile Web" from O'Reilly Books, in a February 2012 blogpost.
But on the Tablet 2.0 release, "it seems to be incomplete," Firtman wrote. "I was able to show a background notification but I could only catch the click event when the user closes the notification with the little "x" icon, not when clicking on the message. Even clicking on the notification's message doesn't do anything. It doesn't open the browser again, it doesn't open the URL [that] I gave when creating the notification and it doesn't trigger any event."
Yet he also wrote that "This new version is again surprising me," with the range of HTML5 firsts it offers. " It's the first mobile browser with remote Web Inspector for debugging over the LAN (instead of USB as in the Chrome browser for Android), an HTML5 File API, 3D transformations, Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) fonts, and Browser History API, according to Firtman.
BlackBerry 10 "will be great for Web developers," promises RIM's Stanley.
Today, developers for BlackBerry can create traditional browser-based Web apps or use RIM's current BlackBerry WebWorks, a PC-based toolkit introduced in 2009, to create "hybrid" apps. The hybrid model is increasingly used also for Android and iOS: apps are developed with HTML5 and application frameworks and then packaged or wrapped in some native code for deployment on either a RIM smartphone or tablet, as if they were pure native apps. An embedded WebView, based on the Webkit engine, lets the hybrid app display HTML pages.
A growing set of APIs let WebWorks developers easily include BlackBerry specific features and services. One example is the BlackBerry Messenger SDK, which lets the app receive and respond to messages, such as an invitation to download an app or automatic updates from a game to the user's Messenger profile.
Over the past year, RIM has stepped up its developer relations efforts, according to Stanley. "We're becoming more of an 'evangelizing' team," he says. "We're hiring new people to get out there and talk with developers at conferences, keynotes, local meetups, showing them and guiding them on Web development and preparing them for BlackBerry 10."
RIM claims those efforts are bearing fruit. In an April blogpost, RIM's Alec Saunders said the first 2012 calendar quarter was the "single biggest quarter for developers in RIM's history." The company says there was a 21% increase in BlackBerry smartphone apps, 89% increase in apps that use the BlackBerry Messenger API for greater interactivity and information sharing, a 240% increase in PlayBook apps (a total of 20,000) submitted to the online BlackBerry App World catalog. The number of registered vendor in App World jumped 68%, with over 35,000 vendors registered or pending approval for App World inclusion.
Though the total number of BlackBerry apps is far less than Google or Apple offer, BlackBerry app daily downloads are comparable. In February, RIM claimed that daily app downloads from App World had reached 6 million, that the online catalog had more paid downloads than Google Play, the online site for Android apps, and that AppWorld was the second most profitable app store after Apple.
According to Stanley, about 20% to 25% of the App World catalog are apps built with the WebWorks SDK. "We're seeing a solid increase in WebWorks apps," he says.
Those are positive signs. But RIM still has to actually release both a winning user interface and a solid operating system running on devices that will capture buyers' dollars and loyalty. And time is running out.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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