Last week BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) held a first-of-its-kind BlackBerry developer event, called the "BBM Hackathon," in which a group of talented mobile software developers packed into New York City's swanky Ace Hotel for a few days, to share ideas and information and build the best BlackBerry applications that integrate with RIM's popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) IM app as quickly as possible.
After heading to New York for the Hackathon, schmoozing with developers and hopelessly trying to comprehend the complex details of the BlackBerry development process--I'm not a developer, nor do I play one on TV--I was fortunate enough to get a sit down with RIM's Developer Relations Director Mike Kirkup.
In the shadow of the Empire State Building, Kirkup and I talked about everything from the new BBM Social development tools that he hopes will bring BBM and BlackBerry to the next level in the mobile space, the brand new BlackBerry 7 OS, and why he's not worried about the future of RIM and BlackBerry, despite a growing negative public sentiment around the Canadian company.
1) BlackBerry Messenger Social--And What It Means to You
RIM recently released new development tools that allow BlackBerry software builders to integrate their applications with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), RIM's proprietary IM app, and Kirkup is particularly excited about the potential of these "BBM Social" tools for both developers and BlackBerry users.
"BBM Social represents a new opportunity for [app] discovery," Kirkup says, because when one BlackBerry user links a BBM-Social-enabled application to his or her BBM account and shares information via a BBM status update, it then brings that app to the attention of all of that user's BBM contacts. And sharing information on a new app also serves as a sort of endorsement for the software, from trusted BBM friends.
For instance, a BlackBerry user who has connected the BBM-Social-enabled foursquare for BlackBerry application to his BBM account can share "check-ins" and other location information via BBM. And BBM contacts who may not already use foursquare could be compelled to check out the service, since they're seeing other BBM friends use it.
The BBM Social tools could also be used to integrate games with BBM, so one BlackBerry user could instantly invite others friends to join in the action via BBM. And BBM users can view their connections' profiles to see which BBM-enabled apps they're currently using and find new software they may have missed otherwise.
2) The New BlackBerry 7 OS and "Liquid Graphics"
Earlier this month, RIM announced a new lineup of BlackBerry smartphones, all of which will run the brand new BlackBerry 7 mobile OS. Kirkup says BlackBerry 7 is by far the best OS RIM has ever released, and though he listed a number of cool new features and enhancements within, the focus was really on one thing in particular: Liquid Graphics.
What exactly, you ask, are Liquid Graphics? Put simply, Liquid Graphics are a combination of new hardware and software components that result in a much smoother, or "liquid," UI and navigation experience than the BlackBerry platform provided in the past.
Any and all BlackBerry smartphone users are likely familiar with the clock icon that appears and freezes up their devices when their handhelds can't quite keep up with the tasks it's attempting to perform or when there's not enough free memory. Thanks to some new code and a new chipset that enables the Open GL ES 2.0 graphics standard, BlackBerry 7 users will see vastly improved navigation in the form of faster scrolling through lists, speedy app launches, unhindered flicking between home screen panels, and more, according to Kirkup.
And best of all, BlackBerry 7 users should see significantly less general "lag" on their devices--that dreaded clock icon should appear much less frequently, Kirkup says.
3) Android Player Coming...Soon?
One hugely anticipated feature in the BlackBerry world announced by RIM back in March: The Android App Player, will allow BlackBerry PlayBook tablet users to run some Android applications.
Unfortunately, it looks like it might take longer than expected for the Android Player to become available to PlayBook owners. RIM initially said the App Player would be released sometime "this summer." But when I asked if it was still on track for a summer release, Kirkup's answer wasn't encouraging.
A number of BlackBerry developers already have access to the offering via a closed beta version, according to Kirkup, and more devs are expected to get it soon. But he would not say whether or not the Android Player will become available before fall--bad news for PlayBook users anxious for access to Android apps via RIM's tablet.
4) Why Developers Should Keep the Faith in BlackBerry
I recently outlined why I still have faith in RIM and BlackBerry, despite a rough past year or so. And, naturally, I was anxious for Kirkup's take on the subject. As a RIM employee I wasn't expecting Kirkup to express worry over the company's future. But his tone and attitude convinced me that this confidence in the BlackBerry maker is genuine.
First, I asked Kirkup why mobile developers should choose the BlackBerry platform at a time when the general mobile-market perception is that the iPhone and Android have the best apps. Kirkup acknowledged the sentiment, but dismissed it as a matter of opinion.
"It's never been easier to develop a BlackBerry application," due to a refined and simplified development process, Kirkup says. And with the release of the new BlackBerry 7 devices, "there's a land-grab opportunity, a whole set of new users showing up. If you can bring [your app] out now, then you have an opportunity to really stand out."
And the potential ROI for BlackBerry apps is huge, Kirkup says, because of the vast BlackBerry customer base. (Kirkup says RIM has shipped more than 150 million BlackBerry devices to date, and upwards of 45 million BlackBerry owners regularly use BBM, which should further entice developers to explore the new BBM Social tools.)
Kirkup also says that the average BlackBerry user is affluent and tech-savvy and, therefore, more likely to purchase applications. To that end, he cited a recent study that measured online influence, which found the average BlackBerry user to have more "Klout" than both Android and iPhone users.
And thanks to RIM's BlackBerry App World software store, BlackBerry developers have a central, easy-to-use and effective way of delivering their software to RIM's millions of BlackBerry users on countless carriers in locales across the globe, Kirkup says.
5) Why Kirkup Still Believes in BlackBerry
As an employee of RIM, Kirkup has unique motivation to remain confident in BlackBerry--or at least keep any doubts he may have to himself.
But when I asked him about all the doom, gloom and negative speculation in the marketplace today regarding RIM and BlackBerry, it's clear that he is truly passionate about the company and his work--and perhaps a little pained/offended by the question, looking more to focus on the positives.
Like a proud parent defending his star-athlete child during a long slump, Kirkup gets slightly defensive.
"Nothing has changed" for RIM and BlackBerry, he says.
The company still has a very solid foundation, Kirkup says, built on more than a decade of mobile-device-specific work in the technology industry. RIM is still the security de facto for many governments and other security-conscious organizations. It still has many, many loyal users. And RIM is currently producing and shipping the best products it's ever offered, according to Kirkup. In fact, Kirkup thinks RIM's latest BlackBerry devices can hold their own with any other comparable handhelds on the market.
"You'd be hard put to find any device that bests the new BlackBerry Bold running the BlackBerry 7 OS right now," Kirkup says. And he thinks this will become apparent to anyone who gives a new BlackBerry 7 device a chance.
If this statement holds true, RIM's biggest challenge going forward becomes getting loyal and satisfied iPhone and Android users--and the BlackBerry converts RIM lost in recent days--to give the new Bold and/or BlackBerry 7 a chance.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.