Research in Motion held its BBM Apps Hackathon in Boston this week, where developers congregated to participate in an “apps-building marathon” using the BBM Social Platform. RIM’s new vice president of developer relations and ecosystem development, Alec Saunders, was on hand to discuss the developer and consumer benefits of the company’s recently-announced BBX operating system, as well as some of the strategy behind the move to the upcoming QNX-based platform.
“This is a great business opportunity where developers are making money,” said Saunders, who cited a 40% increase in BlackBerry adoption over the last year. “BBX is a canvas, a palette for creating rich, interactive experiences.
One of the benefits of a QNX-based system, as many know, is that it uses a set of microkernels as opposed to a single kernel, allowing device makers to scale the operating system depending on what’s needed. “QNX is used in places where when mistakes are made, somebody dies,” said Saunders, adding that it’s used to run nuclear facilities and high-speed train systems. “But it’s also used in consumer products like cars, navigation systems, and now, BBX. The microkernel allows you to create a bulletproof system that is elegant and extremely flexible.” And with BBX, he said, developers can code using a litany of languages and tools, including HTML 5, WebWorks, native C++, and the new BlackBerry Cascades UI.
Because of the ability to program using HTML 5, the apps created are backwards compatible and can go as far back as BlackBerry OS 5. “And it’s forward compatible, too,” said Saunders. “If you build on BBX, it won’t just work on PlayBook OS and BBX, it’ll work on any of our future platforms as well. That’s why we’re telling devs, ‘Get started now, because the future is coming.'”
And the Cascades framework is obviously exclusive to the BBX platform, and is specifically designed to take advantage of next-gen hardware like the dual-core processors found in the PlayBook. “We want to push the boundaries of what’s possible on a mobile platform,” said Saunders. “The Cascades framework has a different style sheet, so devs can work directly with designers apply it to their apps.”
To give me an idea of what he meant about designers being able to apply the Cascades sheets to apps, Saunders pulled up two different apps on his PlayBook. One featured a simple scrolling list on the left side with various selectable images, and once you tapped on one of them, a full-sized view of it would come up on the right side. The other app was not split in two and instead had photos raining down from the top of the screen. Besides just letting the app scroll through the pictures slowly by animating them as they fell from the “sky,” Saunders was also able to manually scroll up and down through all of the photos. Each one was a thumbnail that had its corners curled up like an aging photo, and as they floated down, they could be selected, which would bring up the photo into a fullscreen view.
“These two apps are identical,” said Saunders, “at least from a programming perspective.”
It was just that a Cascades sheet was applied to a simplistic list-and-display app to turn it into a more engaging and lively animated display of all of the app’s assets. “So from a user perspective, the BBX platform offers the benefit of having the physics behind the Cascades sheets spread throughout the OS.”
And it won’t just be the Cascades apps that will be capitalizing on the BlackBerry hardware. Saunders said that consumers will also enjoy the benefits of games from major studios like EA and others, who will be porting the gaming engines like Marmalade and Unity. “We’re working to have them port their gaming engines onto the new platform to take advantage of the hardware,” he said. “We’ll have them build games for BBX, but right now we’re also having them port their stuff over to the PlayBook OS as a precursor.”
PlayBook 2.0 OS and Making the Transition to BBX
That “precursor,” as Saunders called it, is part of RIM’s “breadth and depth” strategy. He referenced this strategy when asked about RIM’s decision to introduce a new iteration of their tablet OS, PlayBook 2.0 OS, in February when they have the BBX platform on the way, which will unify the smartphone and tablet operating systems. The breadth, he said, is a matter of migrating a marketplace’s worth of apps to the new platform. “We have a budget for 30,000 PlayBooks that we’re seeding out to developers. What we’re saying to them is to start building on the PlayBook platform, because you can move those apps to BBX [when it launches] with little to no code modification.” The depth, he said, is the focus on getting apps on the new platform that people want to use. “We call these gate apps,” said Saunders. “We have to have them in order to be credible.”
But Saunders was tight-lipped when asked about whether or not RIM has any major third-party app devs lined up to develop on the new platform, perhaps to help introduce some gate apps such as Netflix and the like. “Unfortunately, due to confidentiality restraints, I can’t discuss that at this time,” he said. Unfortunately, Saunders was equally secretive about the release date of BBX; he refused to even provide a timeframe, though the stopover release of PlayBook 2.0 OS in February suggests that it won’t be any time in the coming months.
Android App Support on BBX
What could help entice developers to switch over to the new platform is that BBX will feature support for Android apps. But while it initially sounds appealing, it begs the question of why RIM would seemingly undercut its own app sales and dev support for BlackBerry apps. If devs can produce Android apps on BBX, why would they bother switching to the new platform for programming?
“What we’re saying to Android app developers is, ‘Put it on our platform and see how you like it,'” said Saunders. “It’s a stepping stone strategy. It’s a way for someone to dip their toe into the BlackBerry App marketplace.
“Cascades can’t happen in Android,” he added. “So, we encourage devs to come try us out; if you like it, build a native app.”
Saunders did point out, however, that this is a tactic best reserved for when approaching experienced or long-time Android app developers. “We wouldn’t recommend that new developers build an Android app from the start and put it on our platform,” he said. “It wouldn’t be good for consumers, because it doesn’t take full advantage of the platform.”
BBM Connected and Social App Integration
To help encourage the sharing of new apps is the BBM Connected platform, which “lets you take your app and give it social aspects,” said Saunders. The most basic aspect, of course, is being able to share your apps via RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger, but he also gave slightly more involved examples of BBM Connected apps. He spoke of one developer at a previous Hackathon that made a Connected rock, paper, scissors app that automatically organized matches among BBM friends in a tournament format by alerting players and setting them up head-to-head.
“We’re using [Connected apps] as a social bus,” said Saunders, who stressed the popularity of the platform. “We have had over 200 BBM Connected apps come out of Hackathons, and they make up 10% of downloads from BlackBerry App World each month. By combining BBM with our development process, we’re making sure that we’re not just making a storefront, but also a social distribution channel.”
This sort of approach — one that incorporates such heavy focus on social aspects and networking — seems to suggest a more casual, consumer-oriented strategy for RIM. But when asked about whether the BBX platform would usher in a new, more consumer-focused era for BlackBerry (as opposed to being so focused on business and enterprise usage), Saunders explained that BBX would allow RIM to focus on both. “Things have changed quite a bit since the first BlackBerry,” he said. “It used to be that your business would give you a phone and that would be it. But now, people go to IT centers at their businesses with their own phone and say, ‘Make it work with our system.'” Because of that, the casual consumer and enterprise users are beginning to mesh together.
“So what we want with BBX is to have a great enterprise story, but to also have a great consumer story.”