Mobile pioneer Research in Motion is fast approaching a crossroads on its long-term prospects. Due early next year, the company's BlackBerry 10 OS and related devices are a potential savior for the platform, and developers vested in BlackBerry expressed faith this week that BlackBerry 10 could indeed provide the much-needed revival.
That's good news for RIM, considering the developer purgatory its platform had become in the face of chief rivals Google Android and Apple iOS.
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"They're reinventing their platform," said Mauricio Angulo, a user experience consultant for Tesseract Space, which builds applications for the publishing industry. "The old platform wasn't going anywhere."
But the question is whether UI improvements, multiple development options, and good old-fashioned marketing will be enough to keep RIM in the game. "I hope it's not too late for them because this product is great," said Mobtapp's Sean Green, who has built a shopping application for BlackBerry.
UI, dev flexibility key to revival
Topping the list of positive improvements is BlackBerry 10's emphasis on graphically oriented apps.
"[The release] makes them relevant again because they've been falling behind," said John Arthur Lowe, a software developer at Jaloweplays, referring to BlackBerry 10's graphical emphasis.
Based on the QNX real-time OS, BlackBerry 10's "Peek" touch interaction, which allows users to get a quick peek at their online activities with a simple gesture, also received a thumbs-up from developers. "The Peek functionality is real cool," says Angulo. "I like the fact that they somehow managed to keep the experience local to whatever activity the user is doing," Green added.
Peek is part of a deeper UI paradigm in BlackBerry 10 called Flow, which is designed for single-handed use, controlled mainly by your thumb. In Flow, you don't switch among apps through a home screen -- though you do have a home screen to launch apps when desired -- but instead thumb through active apps and services by thumbing through them.
The Peek feature lets you use a thumb gesture to reveal alerts and updates in your current apps, such as seeing what new emails have come in while reading a specific email. The Cover approach has the BlackBerry Hub at its base level, which aggregates all your status and messages in one place. You can always peek at the Hub to see what's new globally, and then switch back to what you were doing. And you can open the Hub and use it as a launching point for whatever update is of interest.
The BlackBerry 10 UI is highly tuned to "hyperactive" users who want to quickly check on what's new without interrupting their main focus, said Vivek Bhardwaj, RIM's head of software portfolio. It's an approach modeled on the common BlackBerry users' behavior of keeping the BlackBerry in view under a table while in meetings while the user surreptitiously remains connected. That behavior relies on being able to hold the device in one hand and navigate it through the same hand's thumb, which is why the Cover UI and functions like Peak use thumb-based gestures.
Bhardwaj also said the UI favors communication-style activities that have long formed the backbone of what people use a BlackBerry for, compared to the more general-purpose iOS and Android, where individual apps are the focus and you manipulate them with one hand while holding the device in another. He said that this orientation to the dominant psychographic segment of the BlackBerry user base should both appeal to the 80 million current BlackBerry subscribers and provide a meaningful UI differentiation from iOS and Android.
BlackBerry 10's accommodations for multiple development options -- including native C++, HTML5, recompiled Android, and Adobe AIR -- is also a boon. "If there was any move that was going to save them, it was to have a real-time OS like QNX underneath everything they did that had tool chains for all the different approaches that people like to program in," said Dennis Gearon, co-founder of Kwince. "I have to say I'm absolutely amazed that they supported already as many platforms as they do."
Also garnering approval was RIM's Cascade UI development framework. "Cascade is very powerful," says Martin Goulet, software developer at Macadamian Technologies, which is focused on the usability of software and is porting a Windows 8 app to BlackBerry 10. (Windows 8, Microsoft's upcoming OS with an orientation for tablets, presents another competitive challenge for RIM.)
Marketing, developer outreach vital
But RIM's prospects with BlackBerry 10 may come down to marketing.
Kwince's Gearon, for one, sees marketing as an imperative for drumming up excitement about the platform. "There's a good chance they can increase market share," said Gearon, who describes himself as an Android fan who nonetheless sees an opportunity for BlackBerry. "Every Android implementation I've seen has been a little bit jerky. I know enough about QNX, which is probably one of the premier OSes to build real-time things on and a phone is a real-time app."
Developer outreach will be critical, added Ravi Mishra, vice president of business development at software development firm Reliable Coders. "They really need to engage developers," Mishra said. "We are the people who are out there who are influencing the market."
RIM, for its part, has been doing just that, giving developers BlackBerry 10 prototypes as well as BlackBerry PlayBook tablets and holding events like this week's BlackBerry Jam Americas conference in Silicon Valley.
The big test for RIM will occur next year, when users can add BlackBerry 10 to the list of mobile computing options.
InfoWorld Executive Editor Galen Gruman contributed to this report.
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