BlackBerry reboot: What's in, what's out, and who should keep the faith

The BlackBerry as you know it is going away, to replaced with a new OS derived from the PlayBook tablet

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Most current BlackBerry apps will not run in BBX
RIM says that the new BBX devices will not run most current BlackBerry smartphone apps. The reason: They were coded in Java, and Java apps won't be supported in BBX. That means most BlackBerry developers -- commercial and IT -- need to start over. Apps created in RIM's WebWorks HTML5-oriented development environment will run on BBX devices (both smartphones and tablets), and apps written for the PlayBook will run on BBX devices (both smartphones and tablets, though some adjustments will be needed for the screen differences). You'll need to move to one of those.

Saunders says Java's time as a RIM IDE is over because modern apps and a modern OS need to be created using current technologies such as HTML5 or QNX, which has some very cool APIs and libraries for apps' visual presentation layer called Cascades. He's probably right that this disruption is a necessary one.

The sales figures he shares for app sales in RIM's BlackBerry App World store support the need for that shift: Three of the top-selling apps are PlayBook-only games, which suggests that the BlackBerry app action has already begun declining, given the low PlayBook sales. I certainly hear -- from both IT organizations and vendors who sell mobile app development services -- that developer activity for the BlackBerry has all but stopped, and a recent study from Appcelerator and IDC confirms a huge drop in developer interest in BlackBerry OS.

BlackBerry OS and current BlackBerry smartphones are all but dead
Although RIM released new smartphones this fall using the updated BlackBerry OS 7, don't think there's a future for this OS. Its tortured history was already a clue: It started life as BlackBerry OS 6.1, was delayed six months, and finally got renamed to a whole number to make it look like a big deal, which it isn't. RIM now clearly says that these smartphones will not be upgradable to BBX; if you want a BlackBerry smartphone that will support the reboot, wait for the BBX reboot. BlackBerry OS 7 and the smartphones that run it are an essentially end-of-life platform, the last in the old-school BlackBerry lineup.

Saunders said that RIM will still sell the BlackBerry OS 7 devices in poor nations whose citizens can't afford the higher-spec hardware required to run BBX (such as having a dual-core processor), but only developers targeting these emerging markets could benefit from that continued presence. For the rest of us, the old BlackBerry is being retired.

BBX to compete with iOS and Android, but with a social networking advantage
RIM has bopped around in the last several years trying to sell high security for fuddy-duddy CIOs and security pros on one hand and as a cool gaming, music, and youth-oriented social platform on the other. I couldn't tell what RIM wanted to be, and in any event, it wasn't succeeeding with the youth, despite its popularity with British hooligan rioters. I asked Saunders about it. His answer boiled down to wanting to be a general-purpose mobile OS for games, communications, productivity, media, and creativity. RIM wants to compete directly with iOS and Android.

That's a tall order given RIM's history and its consistent clinging to its secure-messaging history. The PlayBook failed as such an OS and as a secure messaging device, so maybe I'm wrong to think that BBX could be just a fancy messaging device that skimps on the apps capabilities as PlayBook OS now does. Maybe the first PlayBook OS is the last chapter of the ancien regime, and BBX is the shining city on a hill.

What caught my attention in Saunders's description of where BBX is aimed was his focus on BBM Connect, the social technology based on the very popular BlackBerry Messenger service. BBM Connect extends the social conversation into other areas, such as sharing, tagging, and commenting on photos or music. The idea is to allow developers to create social apps in domains other than instant messaging.

Of course, that's the concept behind Microsoft's spectacular Kin failure and to a lesser extent behind its current Windows Phone 7. Still, RIM has seen real traction with BBM Connect: 200 BBM Connect apps account for 10 percent of all BlackBerry World sales, Saunders tells me, out of about 34,000 BlackBerry apps. There's a there there.

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