The platform, a rebranded version of the BlackBerry Widgets development platform that now uses the WebKit Web rendering engine, lets developers use familiar Web tools to write apps that look native on BlackBerry devices

RIM pushes WebWorks for phone, PlayBook development

Research In Motion’s BlackBerry WebWorks Application Platform lets developers use standard Web tools to create applications that work like native programs on RIM’s smart phones and PlayBook tablets, company officials said Thursday.

WebWorks, a rebranded version of the BlackBerry Widgets development platform that now uses the WebKit Web rendering engine, was released last September at the BlackBerry Developer Conference in San Francisco. On Thursday, RIM returned to San Francisco to give more details about WebWorks, which has been made open source and is available through the open-source development site GitHub. WebWorks is RIM’s first application environment for both smart phones and the PlayBook tablet, which is scheduled to go on sale by the end of March. A beta version of the WebWorks SDK (Software Development Kit) for Tablet OS was introduced last month.

RIM rebranded Widgets to emphasize that it can be used to create entire applications instead of just the small on-screen tools usually associated with widget platforms, said Christopher Smith, senior director of research and development for the BlackBerry Development Platform.

“A WebWorks application is a complete application. It has full access to all the native methods on the device. All of the data, all of the services,” Smith said. All the security tools and policies on the BlackBerry platform also apply to that app, he said.

“Under the hood, we are actually wrapping the Web engine in a native container,” Smith said. For BlackBerry smart phones, that wrapper is Java, and for the upcoming PlayBook, it is based on Adobe Flash and Air, he said.

With WebWorks, developers can program in HTML5, CSS and JavaScript and create applications that are far richer than typical Web-based offerings, said Jeff Jackson, senior vice president of software at RIM. It’s hard to tell the difference between Web and native applications based on appearance or capability, Jackson said. At the event, RIM demonstrated multimedia applications on the PlayBook that were written with the standard Web tools, such as an animation program written entirely in CSS.

The company offers WebWorks in addition to its native BlackBerry development environment because many mobile developers don’t want to learn new programming tools to write apps for each vendor’s platform, Smith said. James Pearce, senior director of developer relations at framework vendor Sencha, agreed with that view and said Web-based tools are a good common denominator.

“The Web is a crazy thing to bet against,” Pearce said.

Using standard Web-based technologies is a smart strategy for RIM, which is unlikely to attract the kind of following that the iPhone and Android platforms have built up among developers, said IDC analyst Will Stofega. It lowers the hurdles to getting into BlackBerry development, which could encourage more developers to write for BlackBerry phones and the PlayBook, he said.

There are more than 19,000 applications in the BlackBerry App World store now, and about 35 million mobile users have downloaded apps so far, with a current rate of about 2 million downloads per day, Smith said. But that pales in comparison to Apple’s iPhone App Store, which has more than 300,000 apps available, and the Android Market, which app tracking company AndroLib has estimated at about 200,000. The iPhone App Store recently celebrated its 10 billionth download. AndroLib recently estimated the Android Market has had 2.5 billion downloads.

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