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BlackBerry Development Gets More Open, Accessible and Lucrative


September 28, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- At the BlackBerry Developer Conference 2010 this week, Research In Motion (RIM) announced a set of new features aimed directly at application developers. Some of these help the platform catch up, while others are unique offerings that help distinguish the BlackBerry Platform from other mobile platforms. Developers should be aware of these capabilities as they enhance their current BlackBerry applications and plan new ones.

As is often the case, certain features are available now or will become available very shortly, while others are scheduled further in the future. Certain items have been announced previously and have not yet launched; as such, you should avoid starting development on any apps that require features that have not yet entered beta.

BlackBerry Development Goes Open Source

RIM is kicking off a new period of openness by open sourcing their Web app framework. Previously referred to as BlackBerry Widgets, this framework is being rebranded as "WebWorks", and will be available on GitHub. Alan Brenner, RIM's senior vice president of the BlackBerry Platform, said "We're very excited to be joining the open source community."

RIM isn't just releasing their source code; they're also working with popular Web technology frameworks, such as JQuery, in order to promote sharing and integration between these platforms. This should ultimately result in a greater number of powerful tools being available to develop rich Web apps.

If you've been following BlackBerry widget technology, you'll find that not much has changed here. WebWorks is still the same combination of HTML5, CSSM and JavaScript. You can continue your existing widget development and take advantage of the new WebWorks features as they become available.

RIM is also expanding its openness by turning BlackBerry Messenger into a framework. Messenger is built on top of the existing PIN messaging system. While developers have been able to send PIN messages directly, they have not been able to integrate with the Messenger application. In the future, social apps and other applications will be able to plug in as extensions. For example, you could use Messenger to schedule times for online gaming. Apps can also use Messenger as a data channel for peer-to-peer communication, using a suite of APIs and services. RIM says that this SDK will be available in the spring of 2011.

Finally, many developers will rejoice to hear that RIM is opening its development platform outside of Windows. Even though the BlackBerry toolchain is Java-based, it has been supported only on Windows boxes. RIM will be porting the BlackBerry Eclipse Plug-in to Mac OS X. It will be available to all registered developers, and should be available within a month. There's no word yet on support for Linux, but hopefully RIM's increasing engagement with open source will make this available soon.

Easier BlackBerry Development

RIM has a powerful platform that allows integration with most device features. Writing applications is complex, though, and in recent years they have sought to simplify development. The widgets/WebWorks initiative is one way, by allowing developers to use simpler Web technologies to quickly build user interfaces.

Enterprise applications have historically been among the most challenging apps to write, as they require close coordination between specialized networking components on the backend, communications libraries on the device, and a presentation layer. RIM also announced a new enterprise app middleware service at DevCon. Enterprise App middleware will offer an end-to-end communications channel that should abstract many of these difficulties from developers. You'll be able to focus on modifying and customizing the UI, rather than handling the network integration. A closed beta is scheduled for later this year, with additional public libraries released in 2011.

Most significantly, this middleware layer should greatly improve handling push technology, which traditionally has been challenging and time-consuming to integrate. Another library will support file transfer between the backend and the device. For example, a service company could transfer field manuals to devices on demand. Another library will support sending device information back to the backend; this would allow use cases such as a fleet management company keeping track of its drivers' locations, current calendar schedules, and so on.

Many enterprise applications have also tried to support analytics, a method of tracking how customers are using their apps. This can provide very useful information to developers of all apps, but adding analytics requires either a large investment of time or licensing software from a third-party provider. In early 2011, RIM will make freely available WebTrends software that will allow developers to easily gain insight into how their apps are being used. Developers can use this information to determine how frequently people are using their apps, which screens they spend the most time in, and so on. In turn, you can use this data when prioritizing which aspects of your app to enhance.

Money-making Opportunities

A variety of money-making opportunities should be arriving from RIM in the near future. One item that RIM announced last year is the creation of an advertising services platform. It has finally arrived, and you should need only three lines of code to insert simple or rich media ads into Java-based or Web-based apps. RIM manages the advertising, freeing you from needing to negotiate with advertisers. They will launch with five ad networks and will support dozens more, spanning all global markets.

Developers can let the platform manage ads, in which case BlackBerry will try to select the best ad based on the context, or you can specify a particular ad to display. Ads will integrate with device capabilities, including features like click-to-call, click-to-map, click-to-calendar, etc. The SDK is available now, so you can experiment with monetizing your apps. On the backend, a dashboard will let managers see how well ad campaigns are performing. RIM will share 60% of revenue with developers.

Beyond ads, RIM is also rolling out a new payments platform. This will support new forms of revenue, most interestingly microtransactions. A game could charge, say, one dollar to access a new level or a social app could charge fifty cents to send a virtual gift. Users will be able to pay through credit card, PayPal, or carrier billing on cooperating carriers.

Developers can download the payment SDK now and start writing code to integrate payments into their apps. The actual service should go live at the end of this year for both Java and WebWorks apps.

Finally, on a more prosaic but still much-appreciated level, RIM will temporarily waive all fees associated with BlackBerry App World. That means no more charges for acquiring signing keys, submitting applications, or creating updates. Combined with the advertising platform, we may see an groundswell of free application submissions as developers rush to submit within this window.

RIM's New PlayBook

Apple has a big success in the iPad. Android tablets should be common by the end of the year. RIM answered these challenges with its announcement of the PlayBook, a powerful tablet. Unlike stand-alone tablets, the PlayBook is intended to pair with a BlackBerry smartphone; users should be able to seamlessly and securely move content between the devices. We should see the devices arrive in early 2011.

The PlayBook will run Java and WebWorks applications, using the BlackBerry 6 platform. However, it appears that developers may also be able to write native applications for it, as RIM advertises its support for POSIX and OpenGL. An SDK available later this year should provide a clearer idea of just how these apps will work.

With a dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and a 1024x600 resolution, the PlayBook seems likely to support very high-end gaming. Because the tablet runs a full version of Flash 10.1 and Adobe AIR, developers can reuse existing content intended for desktops.

Next Steps for BlackBerry Development

The future is looking brighter for BlackBerry app developers, who will have more choices for building apps, a hopefully smoother development cycle, and new options for paying the bills. Large numbers of users are migrating to more recent platforms, which support the advanced features RIM is rolling out. In fact, RIM announced that more than 75% of all BlackBerry App World downloads have gone to devices running OS 5.0 or 6.0. Also, with more than 1.5 million apps being downloaded each day, there's plenty of market to grab. Many of the changes announced can be integrated into existing apps with little effort, so why not download the new SDKs and start to experiment with these new features.

About the Author

Chris King is a senior software engineer at Gravity Mobile. He is the author of "Advanced BlackBerry Development" and a co-author of "Unlocking Android, Second Edition." When he isn't programming or writing for fun or profit, Chris can be found reading, baking, cycling, or hiking throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

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