Canadian Markets closed

Developer support crucial to PlayBook’s future

Carmi Levy
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist.

Research In Motion's announcement that its BlackBerry App World online store is now accepting developer submissions for its upcoming PlayBook tablet creates as many questions as it answers.

For developers deciding which tablets to support, answers can't come soon enough.

The PlayBook, which hits U.S. shelves in the first quarter of 2011 and international markets before the end of Q2, is shaping up to be one of the most serious early competitors to Apple's iPad, which since its release six months ago has sold seven million copies worldwide.

As 2011 dawns, tablets are shaping up to be the hottest product category in tech, and while Apple leads the charge, RIM won't be far behind.

The two devices are somewhat different on a number of fronts. While the 10-inch iPad is generating the majority of its buzz in consumer circles, the 7-inch PlayBook aims to leverage RIM's legacy relationships with enterprise buyers who remain invested in BlackBerry smartphones and don't relish the prospect of starting over with an entirely new tablet solution.

They may not have a choice, however, as the PlayBook isn't simply a bigger BlackBerry. Unlike the iPad, which uses the same basic iOS operating system as Apple's other mobile devices, the iPhone and iPod touch, the PlayBook runs an entirely new operating system. Known as BlackBerry Tablet OS, it is based on technology developed by QNX, an Ottawa-based company acquired by RIM in April that specializes in embedded operating systems.

Because the iPad shares so much with earlier Apple devices, developers can move existing iPhone apps to the iPad relatively easily. Even unchanged, older apps designed for the smaller-screened devices will run in a resolution-limited mode on the iPad.

The app-upgrade situation is somewhat murkier for the PlayBook. Although the existing market for BlackBerry software titles isn't as large as it is on competing devices — Apple's App Store now has more than 300,000 apps compared to BlackBerry App World's 15,000 — sheer numbers aren't all that important to enterprise customers.

Business developers, on the other hand, would rather not have to rewrite custom software for the legions of BlackBerry-carrying corporate road warriors.

Whether it's commercially available software from BlackBerry App World or enterprise-created code distributed by IT, it isn't fully clear how existing BlackBerry software will make its way over to the PlayBook.

RIM has not fully explained how developers will be able to migrate BlackBerry titles to the PlayBook. The company has confirmed this is its goal, but developers are still waiting for a roadmap. The situation is muddied still further by the recent introduction of the BlackBerry 6 operating system for smartphones, which is itself radically different than the older BlackBerry OS.

Of course, none of this may matter if RIM succeeds in shifting the conversation away from apps altogether. The PlayBook's advantage compared to the iPad is its built-in support for a wider range of open software development standards.

Out of the box, it supports both Adobe AIR and Flash, which run across multiple computing platforms — except iOS. In theory, thousands of existing AIR and Flash apps could be easily ported over to RIM's new tablet with relatively little development effort. The PlayBoook also natively supports the next-generation HTML5 web language standard.

Combined, these capabilities mean developers who are already creating software or web-based applications in these environments can easily move their projects onto the PlayBook. RIM has released a software development kit (SDK) that accelerates the process for developers, and is working closely with coders to get them up to speed with the new technology.

Incentive programs — in one case, developers are being offered a free PlayBook if they complete their projects before the tablet goes on sale — are also being used aggressively to aid recruitment efforts.

Like all new platforms, however, developers don't jump on board overnight. Convincing them the PlayBook will be viable enough, quickly enough to support their business is easier said than done. Despite its support of open standards, the PlayBook is still very much a clean sheet design which adds complexity and time to the process of building a developer ecosystem.

Unlike the iPad, where developers honed their skills on essentially similar iPhones, PlayBook developers have no such legacy to lean on. As the PlayBook's launch date approaches, the development landscape so crucial to the platform's future remains very much a work in progress.