Last week at CES, RIM unveiled new features and functionality in PlayBook OS 2.0, which is due for a public release in February. Although much more polished than the initial release, we found that it still lacks certain features — including core advantages like BBM — that we would expect to see on a RIM tablet.
Yet the most important feature that PlayBook OS 2.0 lacks is a wide variety of quality apps. To find out how RIM plans to fix that, we sat down with the man tasked with ensuring that the company (re)builds a large developer ecosystem, VP of Developer Relations, Alec Saunders. In a wide-ranging and in-depth discussion, we not only heard RIM's plan for getting developers enthused for PlayBook, but also got some details on RIM's next operating system, BlackBerry 10.
Unfortunately for both RIM and any developers who may be interested in its BlackBerry 10 platform, co-CEO Mike Lazaridis has publicly said that BlackBerry 10-based smartphones won't arrive until "the latter part of calendar 2012." That is a long time to wait, with what looks like precious little good news in the interim. Will BlackBerry 10 be worth the wait? Will RIM find ways to keep developers engaged until it arrives? Read on.
BlackBerry 10: what we know
"There is definitely a unified language being developed for the user experience in BlackBerry 10."
BlackBerry 10 is going to be largely based on PlayBook OS 2.0, which itself is based on the QNX operating system. RIM's promise to developers is that anything developed for PlayBook will work well on BB10 with "minimal changes." While the PlayBook gives us some idea of what to expect, there is one major piece of BB10 which is still a mystery, and it's called "Cascades." Cascades will be the design language for BlackBerry 10: a mixture of core user interface elements and gestural "languages" that both RIM and developers will use to develop apps.
We originally saw tech demos of Cascades at BlackBerry DevCon in October, which were put together by The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), a UI firm that RIM acquired in 2010. TAT has done a lot of great and interesting work in the past, but in October the work we saw didn't seem to have any connection to the PlayBook as we knew it. As cool as the whiz-bang animations were, they didn't have much of a coherent, unified interaction model. Saunders says that will change with BB10: "There is definitely a unified language being developed for the user experience in BlackBerry 10. [...] It's not something you've seen."
What will BlackBerry 10 look like then? RIM's not saying, but the PlayBook 2.0 software does give us some hints. Saunders says that "You can think of those BlackBerry 10 devices [smartphones], they're going to be like a next generation, scaled-down PlayBook. They use the same operating system base, which is QNX, they're going to have the same developer frameworks available to them."
The PlayBook as it currently exists borrows quite a bit from webOS, and many of those gestures and UI interactions will stay — but how much of the new "gesture language" in BB10 will come from the PlayBook, how much from TAT, and how much from other sources is still very much unknown.
From a technical perspective, RIM claims that it will be able to issue over-the-air software updates for BB10 in a timely and consistent manner. RIM says that by securing the radio stack that carriers need to certify, it is free to release updates to the OS without the time-consuming process of vetting them with every single carrier partner. RIM also apparently intends to scale back the proliferation of form factors and "industrial designs" it releases in the future, which should also speed up what is currently a very fragmented process:
We're going to constrain some of the form factors so we don't have quite as many [...] as we've had in the past. One of the things that's we've done [in the past] is a proliferation of industrial designs. [...] In general, it's safe to say that we want to be more sensitive to the needs of developers with respect to the industrial design choices that we make.
While Saunders wouldn't go so far as to confirm whether or not it intends to reduce the number of phone models it releases every year, that's certainly the impression we got. It would make a lot of sense for RIM — a single company can't compete with the sheer number of Android devices released in a given month, let alone a year.
One thing you should not expect with BlackBerry 10: open access to the entire OS. Recently the PlayBook was rooted and RIM intends to not only close that hole but all future attempts to gain full root access to its OS. "That's just a cat and mouse thing," Saunders says, adding "We'll continue to make sure that when we see root exploits of any kind, that the source is identified and closed off."
RIM also does not intend to ever let end users sideload apps, believing that the security of QNX and the curated App World experience is more important to more customers than unfettered access to the guts of the PlayBook. Saunders was refreshingly straight-forward about RIM's philosophy concerning the trade offs between securing its OS for enterprise customers and offering an open OS for hackers: "the vast majority of users want this model. I think we're going to lose some customers and you know what, that's just the way it's going to be."
Developing for BlackBerry 10
"If you have a codebase, we're making it easy for you to bring your codebase to the platform."
One of the bigger issues for developers in the wake of the BlackBerry Developer's Conference last October was the massive array of development platforms available on PlayBook and, by extension, BB10. There is no shortage of ways to develop for these devices, but to date RIM hasn't given clear guidance on which options are best. Native C/C++, Adobe Flash and Air, HTML5/Webworks, a variety of other platforms like Qt and Lua, third party frameworks like Unity and Marmalade, and even Android were (and are) all on the table. That is a lot of options for developers and quite frankly it seems like a recipe for confusion, but Saunders and RIM don't see it that way. The company wants to be agnostic and open when it comes to allowing different development frameworks on its platform, but has singled out C/C++ and HTML5 as the best options for a more native experience:
Our objective is if you have a codebase, we're making it easy for you to bring your codebase to the platform. We're not actually telling developers "You know, here's all these different ways you can develop applications." We're saying C and C++ with Cascades or HTML5. Those are the two native ways that you can build applications for the platform.
RIM's message to developers is to develop based on whatever current frameworks they currently know, but that first-class apps on BB10 will be based on C, C++, and HTML5. Native app developers will eventually have access to new graphical, animation, and gesture assets based on the upcoming Cascades framework, but that is still in "alpha" and will "be coming along shortly." Even assuming that RIM is able to get Cascades out to developers soon, the company has plenty of other problems to address.
Two other ways to develop apps for the PlayBook are Android and Flash. Converting an Android app for use on the PlayBook still requires developers to submit their apps to RIM's App World. Moreover, the performance and presentation of Android apps has been hit or miss at best. Flash's future on PlayBook is even more grim, as Adobe has announced it would no longer develop its mobile offering. Saunders told us that RIM will "follow Adobe's lead" on Flash. Given that Adobe is leading mobile Flash into the field with a shotgun, we're guessing that RIM won't be emphasizing it in the future, though Saunders says the company will still support it. "So long as developers [and] end users want to have Flash content available to them on this device," he says, "then we'll do it."
"For the first time, the company has an evangelism team."
RIM is excited about the number of games that it has for PlayBook — and its strategy of accepting all comers when it comes to frameworks has no doubt helped in that regard. However, RIM's sales pitch to developers during the long wait for BB10 smartphones still isn't entirely clear. Although exact sales numbers for the PlayBook aren't known, we have to assume that the addressable market there isn't exactly large (especially when compared to the iPad). RIM's efforts in the meantime consist of grass-roots evangelism, a back-to-basics kind of developer outreach that the company has frankly not done much of in years-past. The company has finally begun reaching out to developers in Silicon Valley in a serious way, for example.
RIM's message core message for BB10 is that you can develop for it right now by making apps for the PlayBook. Yet lingering questions remain about the technical details of developing for it. Yes, developers can create apps now, but without a clearer picture of what Cascades will be and how much it will change the look and feel of RIM's OS, it's difficult for developers to know whether their apps will feel truly "native" to the platform. Even smaller questions like whether RIM will allow developers to upload "universal binaries" that work on both tablets and smartphones are still unanswered.
Setting aside the technical questions, there's still the biggest roadblock to getting developers excited for BlackBerry 10 for RIM to contend with: will it even matter? Without some serious momentum in PlayBook sales or real-money investment from RIM (in the style of Microsoft and Windows Phone), it's hard to see BB10's app situation as anything but a steep and slippery uphill climb for Waterloo. Getting games like Angry Birds and Cut The Rope on the PlayBook was a good start, but there is still a long ways to go.
Is the platform burning?
RIM may be pointing as many developers as possible at its future platform, but it still has a current smartphone platform that isn't doing so well in the app competition. What about current-generation BlackBerry smartphones based on BlackBerry 7? If a developer wants to make an app for those phones, RIM is happy to say that they will continue to be supported for many years to come, drawing an analogy to Windows 95 apps that were still profitable ten years later when Windows 7 was released. RIM claims there are 75 million worldwide subscribers to its services and feels that is a large, addressable market.
RIM is still also very bullish about BBM-connected apps for its smartphone platform, which Saunders says represents fully 20 percent of all App World downloads. BBM, however, is not yet available on the PlayBook OS. The troubling part is that despite their success, the platform they were designed for will eventually be phased out — and they won't be compatible with BB10 either. Saunders made no bones about BlackBerry 7's future for app developers. He told us in no uncertain terms that "Java's over" and agreed with our euphemistic description of the BB7 development platform as "dated."
If that sounds like a mixed message, that's because it is one. It's also indicative of RIM's current position in the marketplace. The company has been growing its userbase with devices that are clearly behind the curve when compared to current iOS, Android, or even Windows Phone offerings — but that growth has happened outside the US. That's not in and of itself a problem, but it does lead many (including us) to compare RIM's current position to Nokia's famous "burning platform." Like Nokia, RIM appears to be saddled with a popular but aging OS and lacks a clear and ready-to-launch next-generation OS. The bottom fell out of Nokia's previously-dominant global marketshare and the concern is that the same future is coming for RIM. Saunders was having none of it. "Nokia had a pile of debt and was in big trouble. [...] We're a business that's profitable with no debt that grew its customer base last year and continues to grow this year."
Comparisons with Nokia persist, especially given that — like Nokia — RIM is weaker in the US than it is elsewhere around the world. RIM contends that this is a unique situation, that the US market is not a good predictor for the rest of the world:
The US is an anomaly compared to the rest of the world. The reason why is because when Apple launched iPhone, they convinced carriers to give unlimited data. So smartphones went from being devices that were about about getting something done to devices that were about consuming media, and that is a unique blip compared to every other place in the world.
The question RIM has to answer is whether that trend in the US is a harbinger of what's coming to the rest of the world or, as Saunders contends here, simply a "unique blip." Rhetoric aside, we all know that RIM is working to turn its devices into proper multimedia smartphones instead of email and BBM machines.
On the long road to BlackBerry 10, we can't help but think that neither slow nor steady is going to win this race
The challenges before RIM are as big as any faced by a smartphone maker in the past decade. It needs to launch a brand new platform months (most would say years) later than it should have. It needs to find a way to transition its users and developers away from an outdated OS to one that is still unproven and mostly under wraps. It needs to ensure access to a full ecosystem of apps, music, movies, and content on its new platform. It needs to find a way to keep its traditional base of users (enterprise, in this case) in the face of increasingly stiff competition. It needs to find ways to keep even its most loyal customers in the face of bigger competition. It needs to reinvent a corporate culture that has too long been too insulated in the fastness of Waterloo, Ontario. It frankly needs to decide whether to keep its executive team or jettison them for fresh blood. It even needs to decide whether or not to try to stay an independent company or sell itself to one of many rumored suitors.
Can BlackBerry OS 10 achieve all that? Maybe it can, but every month that passes between now and "the latter part of calendar 2012" makes overcoming each of those challenges that much harder. In our conversation, Saunders laid out a slow and steady plan to position the company to succeed with developers and users. On the long road to BlackBerry 10, we can't help but think that neither slow nor steady is going to win this race.
Additional reporting by Jacob Schulman