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BlackBerry DevCon 2010: A Developer's Perspective

At this year's BlackBerry Developer Conference 2010, Research In Motion (RIM) announced a new class of mobile hardware and some tools to help both consumer and enterprise developers enhance their applications. In this article I highlight the announcements made at the conference and show how they'll affect everyday mobile developers.

The BlackBerry Playbook

There was a lot of excitement this year as developer's prepared for DevCon 2010. Beginning a week before the conference, pundits around the world announced that RIM would be unveiling their new tablet device, what everyone was calling the "BlackBerry BlackPad".

RIM took a different approach this year with the conference, scheduling morning sessions on the first day of the conference, then holding the Opening Keynote in the afternoon. RIM Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis gave at hint at the beginning of the session by talking about an upcoming special announcement while holding his hands like he was holding a tablet PC. He talked a bit about how BlackBerry was doing in the market, then finally got around to the big announcement. They launched the device by showing a video that highlighted the capabilities of the device then finally gave us the name -- the BlackBerry Playbook.

It's smaller than I expected; a 7-inch screen in letterbox format (1024x600) and only 0.4 inches thick with dual 1GHz processors and 1 GB of memory. It runs the QNX operating system that RIM acquired through its acquisition of the QNX Software earlier this year; it's an operating system that's widely used in network hardware, automobiles, and too many other places to list here. It's a POSIX-based system, but will run BlackBerry applications (through a Java virtualization layer RIM will create for it). It's designed to deliver the full web experience, utilizing Apple's WebKit rendering engine and including support for HTML 5 and Flash 10.1. RIM worked very closely with Adobe to create the software for the device and their constant reminders that Apple doesn't allow the full web experience (by blocking Adobe Flash) was humorous.

It's a companion device, designed to work alone or in conjunction with a BlackBerry handheld device. It has Wi-Fi capabilities (supporting 801.11 a/b/g/n), so it can stand alone when near a Wi-Fi hotspot. When on the go, away from any Wi-Fi networks, it will leverage its Bluetooth connection to a BlackBerry device and be able to pull email, calendar, contacts and more directly from the BlackBerry (rather than requiring that the Playbook retrieve the same data from a server). There's an assumption that the Playbook can use the companion BlackBerry device's cellular connection to connect to remote data sources, but very little was said about this capability. US Carriers haven't said anything either about whether a Playbook will require a tethering plan in order to use the BlackBerry device's connection, but I assume they will if they can.

From a developer's standpoint, RIM did not provide a lot of detail. Expect that RIM's existing development tools will be updated to include support for the Playbook. Since it's a completely different hardware architecture and operating system, it's likely you'll need to learn a new set of API's to build applications for this device (unless you leverage the BlackBerry VM provided). This ultimately is a good thing since RIM has been getting hammered in the market recently for the perceived limitations on their devices. This switch to a new operating system (RIM is unclear on this one, but it's also likely future BlackBerry devices will run this same OS) allows RIM to do some interesting things and streamline the APIs available to developers.

For now, when you build applications for the device, you'll be building them in HTML or Flash. Expect RIM to release a suite of development tools for the platform soon after it's released. Members of RIM's ISV Alliance program will be able to get their hands on the new tools as soon as they're available.

BlackBerry Messenger Social Platform

For developers creating applications that only target BlackBerry users, RIM announced the BlackBerry Messenger Social Platform (BBMSP). BlackBerry Messenger is essentially a free instant messaging platform that leverages RIM's BlackBerry infrastructure to allow BlackBerry devices to send messages between themselves. BlackBerry users have always had the ability to send PIN to PIN messages to other BlackBerry devices (even across carriers). BlackBerry Messenger is essentially a chat and contact management application built on top of PIN to PIN messaging.

With the BlackBerry Messenger Social Platform, RIM is providing an additional suite of APIs developers can use to leverage BlackBerry Messenger capabilities/services into their applications. This includes chat, content sharing and invitations, contacts and more. In one example that RIM demonstrated, they showed how the developers of the Kobo eReader used these new APIs to enhance the capabilities provided by their program. When reading or learning about a book, these features let users suggest a book to their friends or even chat among themselves about a particular book directly from within the eReader application. The ability to recommend and chat is already available through other applications such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Talk for example, but this provides an easy way to provide the same capabilities within a custom application, increasing customer loyalty, saving time for users and allowing these types of interactions to remain within the context of the application.

The BlackBerry Messenger Social Platform is expected to be available in Spring, 2011. RIM believes BlackBerry Messenger is an important piece of technology, but while providing interesting capabilities, this service is limited by the fact that it only works on the BlackBerry platform. While BlackBerry has become very popular with consumers, it's not likely that every member of a group will all be carrying BlackBerry devices. So, to build in the types of features provided by the BlackBerry Messenger Social Platform into your application, the APIs will make it easy to do on a BlackBerry, but will require developers to handcraft a similar solution for their application running on other mobile platforms.

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