RIM to unify BlackBerry, PlayBook apps under BBX platform

Apps developed for the QNX-based platform will work across smartphones, tablets, and embedded systems

Research in Motion today introduced a common application platform for its BlackBerry 7 OS smartphones, the QNX-based PlayBook tablet, and embedded systems under the QNX operating system, calling it BBX. Developers will be able to write software for BBX and have it work across all those hardware platforms into the future, RIM founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said in the opening keynote at BlackBerry DevCon in San Francisco.

The company emphasized open source development for BBX, saying it would provide almost 100 open source libraries and make more available in the future, including ones contributed by app developers. At the same time, the platform will include a secure kernel so enterprises can feel safe creating apps for it, RIM said.

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The BBX environment underlies the platform along with BlackBerry Cloud Services, on top of which developers can write apps using HTML5 and RIM's WebWorks or with the company's native SDK (software development kit) and open source code.

Developers from Motek Mobile, a BlackBerry consumer applications shop in Waterloo, Ontario, welcomed the news. Wes Worsfold, president of Motek, said RIM's strategy hasn't been clear enough. "Today, it's very clear," he said.

Aaron Barnes, a developer at Motek, welcomed RIM's increased emphasis on open source. Over the past few months, RIM has accelerated its strategy of helping developers share their own software components among each other, he said. Those can be shared as plug-ins, and the most popular will be integrated into future releases of RIM's WebWorks development platform itself.

A heavy emphasis on games in the morning general session was probably driven by demand, said Barnes, whose company doesn't develop games. "People have been starving for games," he said.

It was critical for RIM to let developers know that what they create now can be used on future devices, said ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr. Though the company had said it would bring QNX to smartphones, it wasn't clear whether the OS on smartphones would be the same as on tablets and on embedded systems such as cars, Orr said. Those platforms all have different requirements, and the OS could have been different for all of them, he said.

RIM is also taking steps to make it easier for developers to jump into creating apps. Developers now can download the native SDK for the PlayBook and start writing an app, without having to register until they submit the app for approval.

The company spent much of the morning's session showing off games developed for the PlayBook but also had news for enterprise developers. There will be an Enterprise AppWorld, a store for enterprise apps, in the future, RIM said.

The stakes are high for RIM at DevCon following a long wait for key features on the PlayBook, anticipation of next-generation phones running QNX, and finally a widespread service outage last week. The timing of the problem was poor, coming the same week Apple introduced iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S. The next version of Android, called "Ice Cream Sandwich," is expected to be announced later today.

Though still profitable, RIM has been struggling to keep up with Apple's iPhone and the many Android devices hitting the market. Last month, Nielsen reported that in the previous three months, just 9 percent of those who bought a new phone chose a BlackBerry, compared with 28 percent who bought an iPhone and 56 percent who picked Android. IDC has predicted that RIM's share of smartphones in users' hands worldwide will fall from 16 percent to 14 percent this year.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for the IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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