Research in Motion is making a big push to reinsert its BlackBerry operating system as a top platform for mobile application developers.
The biggest piece of this effort is RIM's upcoming BBX operating system that will be released on BlackBerry tablets and smartphones sometime early next year. RIM is also hosting a series of app development "hackathons" across the US to help developers create applications that work with the company's BlackBerry Messenger program.
Alec Saunders, RIM's new vice president of developer relations, said at Thursday's Boston Hackathon that RIM was well-positioned to make gains in terms of attracting new app developers despite recent gloomy news surrounding the company. In the first place, he noted that there are 70 million BlackBerry users around the world, which is hardly anything to sneeze at. Second, he cited research from the Yankee Group showing that while BlackBerry's AppWorld has fewer apps than rival stores from Apple and Google, it actually has more paid downloads than Google's Android Market, meaning that creating paid apps for App World can be a profitable endeavor.
Saunders also expects the number of app developers drawn to BlackBerry to accelerate once they start working with the Webworks Software Development Kit that acts as a guide for companies that want to create HTML5 applications that can then be uploaded directly onto RIM's BlackBerry AppWorld. HTML5 is the latest version of the classic HTML programming language featuring graphics and video capabilities that have been touted as alternatives to Adobe's Flash software.
Saunders says the BBX platform will be both backward and forward compatible, meaning that any application you develop for it will work on both previous versions of the BlackBerry OS and future versions of BBX. This could be key at a time when rival operating system Android has also started to unify its many platforms into a cohesive whole that works the same way on both tablets and smartphones.
"BBX is a next-generation mobile operating system," he says. "It's like when Apple first came out with iOS and that was the first big successful smartphone operating system. It was like the transition from Model T cars to the models that GM first brought out."
Another BBX key feature is its Cascades graphics platform that can help graphic designers improve an application's user interface without the aid of software developers. Essentially, the graphics platform takes lists of data that have already been programmed into the applications - for the sake of simplicity, let's say a group of pictures - and allows graphic designers to rearrange them in different formats and patterns without extensive knowledge of programming language.
"People who are really good designers can now program a great UI and can do it without having to get programmers involved in the same way," Saunders explains.
And finally, RIM wants developers to utilize BlackBerry Messenger more to help make their apps more interactive. Saunders notes that while there are currently only 200 apps on App World that are connected with BlackBerry Messenger, those apps represent around "10% of downloads in a given month." Saunders says the primary virtue of BlackBerry Messenger is its ability to quickly and easily send information to other users. For instance, he notes that FourSquare has happily embraced BlackBerry Messenger as a mechanism for its users to send around their location data with ease.
All told, then, RIM is making a major push to take back a leading role in the world of mobile apps. This is somewhat of a shift from a company whose co-CEO last year said that mobile applications were a secondary factor for RIM since the company was primarily focused on delivering the best Web experience and not on getting the latest applications. And while RIM has been in a state of limbo for most of the year the company is betting that its new platform will spark new interest in the company and generate more innovative apps.
"Developers are making money on the BlackBerry platform," Saunders says. "And the BBX platform is a rich palate that developers can use to create even richer experiences."