With its future up for grabs, Research in Motion at its annual BlackBerry World conference next week will focus on simplifying development for its soon-to-be-unveiled BlackBerry 10 operating system. HTML5 is one key technology in that strategy to create a viable ecosystem of applications for a new generation of mobile devices expected to ship by year-end.
The simplicity is needed because BB10, based on a real time kernel acquired with RIM's buyout of QNX Software Systems in 2010, is a complete break with the software that runs on standard BlackBerry smartphones. Sales of those devices have been collapsing since the third quarter of 2010, and continue to do so, as RIM's recent fourth quarter earnings show. RIM sold just over 11 million smartphones, down 21 percent from the previous quarter, and 500,000 PlayBook tablets; quarterly revenue was $4.2 billion, or 19 percent less than the third quarter and 25 percent less than a year ago.
[ANALYSIS: 4 tough challenges for RIM's new team]
[2011 TIMELINE:RIM's very bad year]
HTML5 and RIM's larger development strategy will come into sharp focus at BlackBerry World in Orlando. This year, it includes the heavily promoted BlackBerry 10 Jam, an intensive, developer-focused agenda for the new operating system, which has not yet been released in final form.
"It's a bit of a challenge," says Tyler Lessard, formerly a RIM vice president in charge of the global developer program, and since October 2011 chief marketing officer at mobile security vendor Fixmo. "There's very little or no compatibility between the old and new operating systems. Existing apps can't be carried forward to QNX and BB 10. The question is, once the BlackBerry 10 smartphones launch, can RIM have an adequate catalog of apps?"
Next week, RIM will release four beta toolsets for BB10 development, allowing software writers that already have experience in Adobe Air, Android, and HTML to use those same skills to create applications for the PlayBook tablet and the new BB10-based phones that are due out later this year. That's a big pool of potential developers: but they have to be convinced that BlackBerry 10 apps can be competitive with those for Apple iOS and Google Android, and that there will be compelling mobile devices to run them.
"Some developers see it as a good opportunity; others are taking a wait and see approach," Lessard says.
The fourth beta toolset is a native software development kit for BB10, intended for high performance apps and mobile games. RIM will also hand out some number of a "limited edition prototype device" dubbed BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha so that developers can begin designing BB10 apps on something resembling a BB10 smartphone. (In January, the CrackBerry Website posted a photo that purports to show one of the new phones.)
The industry only recently began paying attention to RIM's HTML5 investment, and much of the online commentary sees it as a stop gap, a desperate bid to attract some interest until the full BB10 firmware is released along with the software-development kit for native apps.
On the contrary, insists Adam Stanley, senior application development consultant with RIM's BlackBerry Developer Relations group. "Our attempt is to provide an industry-leading mobile Web platform," he says.
In fact, RIM is now expanding and refining its HTML5 support, which began in 2010 with BlackBerry OS 6 after RIM bought Torch Mobile, a mobile browser company focused on the widely used open source Webkit browser platform. Since then, the BlackBerry browser has been repeatedly upgraded with more HTML 5 support, along with BlackBerry OS 7, and the PlayBook OS 1.0 and in February, Version 2.0. PlayBook OS is the QNX-based precursor to BB10. RIM's mobile browser for BlackBerry OS 7 current ranks in the middle of the pack at The HTML5 Test Website but the in-development BB10 browser outstrips all of them except for one, also in development.
The latest HTML5 additions in PlayBook OS 2.0 are no automatic assurance of high performing, well-behaved HTML5 features. One example is the inclusion of the Web Notifications API, previously only found on Firefox for Google's Chrome OS. This is a "killer" feature that enables "Web apps to communicate with the user anytime" via a "notification in the operating system from a webpage...," writes Max Firtman, a development trainer and author of, among others, "Programming the Mobile Web" from O'Reilly Books, in a February 2012 blogpost.
But on the Tablet 2.0 release, "it seems to be incomplete," Firtman wrote. "I was able to show a background notification but I could only catch the click event when the user closes the notification with the little "x" icon, not when clicking on the message. Even clicking on the notification's message doesn't do anything. It doesn't open the browser again, it doesn't open the URL [that] I gave when creating the notification and it doesn't trigger any event."
Yet he also wrote that "This new version is again surprising me," with the range of HTML5 firsts it offers. " It's the first mobile browser with remote Web Inspector for debugging over the LAN (instead of USB as in the Chrome browser for Android), an HTML5 File API, 3D transformations, Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) fonts, and Browser History API, according to Firtman.
BlackBerry 10 "will be great for Web developers," promises RIM's Stanley.
Next page: RIM steps up its developer relations effort