With RIM getting ready to release BlackBerry 10 early next year, they’ve been on a bit of a blitz this year, targeting both developers and the media. For those who know RIM, this is a complete departure from what we’ve been used to. I had an opportunity to attend one of their recent BlackBerry 10 Jam events in Vancouver and came away impressed and with some useful info on developing for the upcoming BlackBerry 10 platform. While there, I also saw what RIM is doing to ensure that this platform is as developer friendly as possible and got more info on what RIM is doing to ensure that this platform has more than enough apps at launch.
The BlackBerry 10 Jam events were set up as a completely new way to engage developers, but the changes at RIM really started before that, with RIM giving PlayBooks to developers at last year’s DevCon. And this was just the start of RIM getting developers ready to develop for BlackBerry 10. At this year’s BlackBerry Jam/World Conferences in Orland, RIM gave away a large number of BlackBerry 10 Dev Alphas to qualified developers to help them get started developing on a device that would have similar dimensions and screen resolutions as the official release devices. Of course, not all developers from across the world could attend this event, so RIM went all out, bringing the BlackBerry 10 Jam conferences to four different continents across the world. It enabled RIM to do a lot of early seeding, and gave them more direct access to developers who may be considering developing for BlackBerry 10, but didn’t know where to start or if it would be worth it.
BlackBerry 10 Jam Vancouver was RIM’s final North American stop for their BlackBerry 10 Jam World Tour before the big BlackBerry Jam Americas conference in San Jose later this month, and I have to admit that I was surprised just how many developers came to attend. I met developers that flew in specifically for this event from Calgary and Edmonton and found out after about a developer who even came from as far as Whitehorse. Although some of the attendees had previously developed for the BlackBerry platform, many were completely new to the platform, having developed only for Android or iPhone before. And a few were like me – they had never developed for any platform before, but had ideas and wanted suggestions on where to start.
The event got started by showing the BlackBerry 10 introduction video from BlackBerry World (see above), followed by a video demo of the Pacemaker app on the PlayBook which was also shown at BlackBerry World (see below). After an introduction, we all got to see a very amusing and awesome music video rendition of Tom Petty’s – The Waiting, BlackBerry 10 edition, performed by Alec Saunders, VP of Developer Relations and some of the other Vice Presidents (VPs) of the Developer Alliance Program at RIM. This really got the room going and you could feel the energy. Then it got a bit more serious, with Alec Saunders coming up and directly addressing some of the criticisms targeted towards RIM and acknowledging the negative media. Then we got into the nitty gritty.
When it comes to developing for RIM, it really comes down to three things: Flow, Connect and Extend. RIM wants the BlackBerry 10 experience to flow seamlessly, and that also means being able to move between apps incredibly easily. They also understand that “BlackBerry People” want to connect. BlackBerry users are more social than other platforms and RIM wants to make it as easy as possible to enable this. And finally, RIM wants us to extend our experiences beyond our phones. For example, imagine leaving your car with GPS navigation and having that extend to your BlackBerry 10 device so you can continue navigating from your car to your destination. Ultimately, RIM sees all of this as being possible, and is doing what they can to move in that direction.
RIM also took some time to dispel some myths about developing for the BlackBerry platform. No, it is no longer confusing to develop for BlackBerry. Developers can use any number of tools, including C/C++ (Native), HTML5, ActionScript, and the Android Runtime. You can pick what works best for you and go from there. And no, developers are not leaving the BlackBerry platform. Instead, the number of vendors on App World has increased 137% since last year, and the number of apps has increased 130%. There are now over 100,000 apps available for BlackBerry, including 25,000 for the PlayBook alone. It is nowhere near as doom and gloom as the media would like to make it out to be.
There are also some great programs that will be coming soon for developers, including a Certified for BlackBerry program which will give assurance that apps were built for the BlackBerry 10 platform and that we’re not just looking at an Android port. These apps will also be eligible for a guarantee. If your app makes over $1,000 but less than $10,000, RIM will make up the difference. They also gave developers info on different options to monetize apps and some strategies to help increase visibility of your apps. One of the biggest take aways from this sections though is that thus far, BlackBerry developers generate a higher average revenue and lower development costs than the other platforms out there. In other words, if you want to make money as a developer, BlackBerry is a great place to start.
Just after lunch, I got to meet with Alec Saunders. He has really been a force behind the change at RIM, and although he’s only been with RIM for just over a year now, he’s already brought dramatic shifts in how RIM views and values their developers. He confirmed that BlackBerry Jam Americas (held September 25-27 in San Jose, CA) will be a big event for developers and media alike. The APIs will be complete/frozen which means developers will be able to start finalizing their apps, and developers at the conference will be the first to see what this means for them. RIM will also be showing some new features that we haven’t yet seen for BlackBerry 10. In other words, we’re going to get to see more and more of what we can expect at release.
After, I got down to it and asked some pressing questions that I know many people want to know. First off, one of the biggest criticisms from most BlackBerry users or those looking at the platform is that BlackBerry is missing some of the big name apps. Alec informed me that his team is working on building an ecosystem that makes it easy for people to bring apps to BlackBerry, but RIM also has a separate team whose job it is to get the big apps on board. Of course, we’ve already seen a number of apps come to the PlayBook platform (e.g. Angry Birds, Cut The Rope, and many others), so it’s evident that progress is being made. However, only time will tell if we’ll see big name apps like Skype, Instagram, Netflix and others on the platform at release.
Next, I asked Alec about all of this talk of licensing and he confirmed that current discussions are for other smartphone manufacturers, but of course he couldn’t provide any specifics beyond that. But, we did discuss the potential of BlackBerry 10 making its rounds to other devices, and it’s clear that there is a large opportunity there. At this moment, there are over 9 million cars running QNX software, which is the basis for the BlackBerry 10 platform, and everything from nuclear reactors to heart monitors can work on QNX software (and do).
I also wanted to find out about what would happen to existing BlackBerry users and their apps. People invest a large amount of money into apps and it would be frustrating to have to repurchase that app you bought 4 months ago on your BlackBerry 7 device, only to find out you have to repurchase it on your BlackBerry 10 device. Or, even worse, it may not be available on your BlackBerry 10 device. Ultimately the final choice on both of these subjects would be up to individual developers. However, Alec did let me know that RIM has a number of people working to help previous BlackBerry developers get equivalent functionality on the new BlackBerry 10 devices, both directly and via workshops. Unfortunately though, it was confirmed that if an app ran in the background (e.g. utilities such as Meterberry or SixTools), it would not be on BlackBerry 10 at launch. Once the devices have been released, RIM will reassess whether to permit such apps.
I also wanted to know what sort of experience RIM is aiming for with regards to their new devices. Key points are that the devices will be able to be operated one-handed, keeping your other hand free to do other things and allowing you to become truly mobile. The UI is all gestural and the idea of “flow” is core to the experience. RIM also recognizes how important the QWERTY devices are to many existing BlackBerry users, so it was reiterated that RIM is not giving up on QWERTY. Alec also mentioned that RIM has worked hard to learn from previous experiences to find what works and what doesn’t, and they have done their research to figure out what is important to BlackBerry users. They understand that while “BlackBerry People” use their BlackBerry smartphones to work, they also want access to media and games, etc. for their off time.
Finally, we discussed what RIM is doing to ensure that they are getting quality apps on the new BlackBerry 10 platform. The certification program previously mentioned is a carrot, but RIM also has design guidelines available for developers to use. They will also have a whole track at the BlackBerry 10 Jam Americas conference in San Jose, CA this month dedicated to development. Another thing that RIM is really pushing now is to get developers to switch to the Native (C/C++) or HTML5 coding platforms, and indeed, that will be a requirement for the certification program. In addition, for those who currently own a PlayBook, you’ll know that if you check the Newest Apps page in App World, many of the apps listed there are really eBooks. RIM is aware of this issue and is looking at how they can fix this issue, including favoring legitimate apps in listings.
While at the meeting, I also spoke with a number of different developers about their impressions and the general consensus is that they came away impressed and were optimistic about the future of BlackBerry 10. Those developers who have developed for BlackBerry products in the past are amongst those who have a much greatest appreciation for these efforts. In the past, they felt that they were completely on their own when it came to developing apps for the older OS versions. Now, they actually feel like if they need help they can get it. And this has led to a lot of excitement about developing for BlackBerry 10, which is excellent as it means that we should have lots of apps when the new platform is released early next year!
All in all, I walked away from the day satisfied with what I heard. RIM has an uphill battle ahead bringing former BlackBerry faithful back into the fold, but from everything I’ve seen and heard so far, it looks like the BlackBerry brand has a real chance to come back with a vengeance. And ultimately, for Canadians who want to support Canadian companies, this is good news. Now, for the hard part… to wait for these devices to come out next year.
Note: If you are interested in developing an app for BlackBerry 10, there are some great resources available, and one of the best places to start is http://developer.blackberry.com.
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