RIM to unify phones, PlayBook under BBX OS

SAN FRANCISCO — Research In Motion introduced a common platform for its smartphones, the PlayBook tablet and embedded systems under the QNX operating system on Tuesday, 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.

The BBX operating system 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, Ont., 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.

The news will set casual-games company Concrete Software on a path toward developing games for the PlayBook, looking to have those same games run on future BlackBerry smartphones, said Keith Pichelman, the company’s CEO. Concrete, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., has been selling games for BlackBerry phones since 2004 and offers them for the other major mobile OSes as well. It had held off on creating for the tablet.

“We didn’t want to jump on QNX and then have them kill the PlayBook,” Pichelman said.

Developers at the conference also welcomed RIM’s emphasis on supporting open-source tools. Increasingly, BlackBerry developers can share software components they create, which helps all the companies that participate, said Aaron Barnes, a developer at the game company Motek Mobile.

RIM heavily pushed HTML5 in its presentations, showing apps with motion graphics and other flashy components. Its focus on the emerging Web platform, which can support offline app use, was another signal to some developers that HTML5 is the way mobile development is going.

“It’s a rapidly changing world,” said Julian White, CEO of Ottawa’s Seregon Solutions Inc.. Seregon sells DragonRAD, a cross-platform mobile application development tool.

RIM needed to articulate a coherent vision and succeeded, White said. He and other developers at the show said they were impressed with the technology RIM showed off on Tuesday, such as the Cascades user-interface framework that the company acquired when it bought the Swedish engineering firm, The Astonishing Tribe. White hopes to see Cascades applied to HTML5.

This type of technology is valuable to MedShare, a Cambridge, Ont. developer of home health-care management software, because the nurses who use the company’s applications typically aren’t technically savvy and want an interface that’s easy to use, said Michael Pietrantonio, a software architect at MedShare.

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 handsets, it wasn’t clear whether the OS on phones 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 on Wednesday.

The blogging world, too, recognized the poor timing of the outages, with some, like Jesse Bauer of Technorati, calling RIM’s collapse a more and more likely scenario. “It certainly makes RIM look foolish when compared to their competition. We may be seeing the end of the BlackBerry era sooner than we think,” he said.

There was no more specific news about the future QNX-based phones or a new version of the PlayBook in the initial session. Lazaridis told developers that RIM is still working on root-cause analysis on last week’s outage.

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 per cent of those who bought a new phone chose a BlackBerry, compared with 28 percent who bought an iPhone and 56 per cent who picked Android. IDC has predicted that RIM’s share of smartphones in users’ hands worldwide will fall from 16 per cent to 14 per cent this year.

(With files from JD Speedy, Computerworld Canada) 

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