Blackberry’s DevCon Asia very nearly didn’t happen last December when the floods in Bangkok proved to be too much for the conference. However, the good folks at Research in Motion (RIM), managed to pull off a massive migration to sunny Singapore instead, and as far as we could tell, without any hitches. The decision to switch was made a mere two weeks before the event proper.
A bigger success than that however, would have to be that RIM’s annual developer conference was held twice in this Asia region for 2011. Last year was the year that the DevCon series came to Asia for the first time; it debuted in Bali, Indonesia in January; and there was probably no better way to make a big bang than to have the event again in Asia, after almost a year.
However, Bali didn’t see the announcement of the new operating system for Blackberry devices or the flurry of other updates that the October DevCon Americas had featured. If Bali’s DevCon was to test the waters and see how Asian developers would handle RIM’s major developer event, then the lineup of topics later in Singapore was a good indicator of how hungry Asian developers are for more.
There were over 50 breakout and hands-on lab sessions across the two-day event as well as an Ask the Experts opportunity, set up at RIM’s Mobility Pavilion at Suntec Convention Centre. Topics ranged from technical-based ones like Java development for Blackberry and its tablet OS, developing with WebKit and WebWorks to marketing topics like go-to-market strategies.
Needless to say, much had happened since the first Asian DevCon in Bali, and much more has happened since the Singapore event, and even now as this is being written up, the Blackberry developer community as well as the media are gearing up for the upcoming DevCon in Amsterdam, in February, 2012.
DevCon Asia, Singapore
Gregory Wade, regional managing director for East Asia kicked off the event in an exuberant mood, claiming that the good work that was being done by game developers on the Playbook had turned him into a rejuvenated gamer.
But perhaps more important than that was why DevCon had come to this part of the world. Wade says, “There’s no doubting the emergence of Asia as an economic hub, growth engine and also a tremendous base of developers.
“Developer innovation is coming more and more from Asia,” he observes.
There was also need to emphasise the marketability of Blackberry apps in Asia as in quite a few Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines, Blackberry is emerging as the number one mobile phone or smartphone. “There are over three million Blackberry fans across social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Weibo,” says Wade.
And with all that potential in terms of Blackberry users, probably none is more suited to be developing apps for them, than developers in Asia themselves. With local knowledge of markets in their own countries, these developers know best about what might or might not work, and would be able to fill in the gaps in an ecosystem which traditionally leaves out the Asian market.
Wade points out to the developer crowd in Singapore, the close working relationship that RIM has with telco operators and distributors in the region, and “… the tremendous opportunity developers have to be seen and heard. Absent apps and services come from local developers too.”
New and Unified Wooing
During the general session on the first day, Alec Saunders, VP of developer relations and ecosystem development had unveiled a brand new way they are approaching their developers, called Blackberry Jam. This fresh collaborative approach encompasses Sessions, Community and Zone and even a Blackberry Jam Recognition Program or The Jammies, for short.
The program aims to offer a way for developers around the globe to share and learn best practices together.
RIM realises it has to act fast to stem the haemorraghing of developers to the other two more popular operating systems out there, iOS and Android, and step up efforts to woo developers. The promise of a bigger and better device OS in the form of Blackberry 10 (BBX or BB 10) beckons, and support by Playbook 2.0 and BB10 for repackaged Android apps, can help further populate Blackberry App World.
Android apps can be repackaged for Blackberry Playbook in ten minutes compared to the usual five hours, a huge motivation to do so, and in fact just days before DevCon Europe, there was news that of a Blackberry-hosted hackathon before the conference which aims to port HP webOS applications to Blackberry WebWorks platform. The open source WebWorks allows web developers to use it with their tools of choice when they are developing, testing and packaging their applications for RIM phones and tablets.
The hackathon would be a proof-of-concept that porting more apps from other OS to Blackberry devices is also viable. It would give the developer ecosystem the ability to build once or twice and have their apps supported across more operating systems.
Martin Mallick, VP of global alliances and business development at RIM says during an interview, “Essentially what Blackberry’s new initiative allows is for developers to take an Android application and allow it to run in an Android runtime, on top of the BB 10 operating system.”
This Android player allows developers to have a very simple path to get an application running on the BB 10 platform, and Mallick claims, “At the end of the day, the capabilities that they will have to build an application directly on BB10 will lead to a much better user experience because you will have the Cascades interface, you can build robust HTML5 applications and do things like BB messenger (BBM) integration.
“We spend a lot of our time looking to have our developers building natively to platform, but we want to give them lots of options.”
The other big story – betting on a new operating system
Starting from scratch is always a tricky thing. Starting from scratch while other operating systems are surging ahead is even trickier. And yet, that is what RIM has decided to do by combining the best of the Blackberry smartphones with QNX which can be found on their tablets, to form BBX.
The idea is exciting, because it mixes the familiar with the new and research house Ovum has even reported that while iOS and Android form the core of developer support, there is also significant drive behind RIM’s OS.
Whatever the real case may be, no other operating system besides RIM’s and Microsoft’s come close to competing with iOS and Android, and by all that is bright and beautiful in this world, we need all the competition and choice that the mobile industry has to offer.
For developers, it isn’t so simple. They would have to deal with fragmentation, but more than a few of them have also described Apple as pain in the a**es because of the market share which they command. Android isn’t much better because their lax entry requirements have seen apps with malware giving all the other legitimate apps a bad name.
The key thing is developers want to be able to create for as many platforms as possible, as it casts a wider net for monetisation purposes, but a majority of them do not have the resources to build for all platforms. The onus is on the less popular platforms to make porting apps over to theirs, easier.
That is easier said than done, but the level of cooperation RIM has with telco operators and their historically long established relationships with them, is something the Waterloo-based company has that the other three platforms don’t. The willingness to collaborate would go a long way.
Creating Alliances the World Over
Martin Mallick shares further about his role at RIM which involves building alliances worldwide.
“There’s different ways you can work with RIM on building applications. So every developer has an opportunity to get access to development tools, support, the forum, and things like that. Then we also have an alliance program that you can join; and the program has different tiers that enable you to get access to different business development, marketing resources, additional development resources as well. It’s an optional program to join. As part of the alliance program you also get access to some of the devices before they come to market. So you get earlier access to build applications. So the applications are built prior to the device launch.
The base level is a free program. So the program itself is free and on top of that. there are some tiers that you can pay to get additional support and capabilities.”
Mallick on Adobe stopping Flash development:
“We’re in a very good position with Flash. Adobe’s announcement was for the Flash player that they develop. RIM is a licensee of Flash itself, so we actually built all the Flash implementations in our device directly. And so it will continue to be supported in Playbook, we’re not impacted by that announcement. Flash continues to be an important part of our strategy. We continue to work with Adobe.
This is a rich user interface framework that comes with a future release of Blackberry’s native SDK.
Cascades unleashes a new breed of design-centric mobile applications and provides developers with a feature set for creating stunning interfaces with custom layouts, animations, effects and 3D graphics. These features, combined with a strong set of built-in core user interface components, will make it easy to build beautiful native applications with innovative user interfaces for the current BlackBerry PlayBook and future BBX-based tablets and smartphones.
The upcoming BBX will also include the new BlackBerry Cascades UI Framework for advanced graphics and bring “Super App” capabilities to enable many advanced capabilities including deeper integration between apps, always-on push services, BBM, and much more.
VP of Blackberry application platform and tools, Christopher Smith says, “Cascades represents how our vision for the user interface will evolve.”