RIM's BBX has all the logic PlayBook should have had
BBX converges BlackBerry and QNX, and beefs up enterprise features
RIM is a frustrating company right now. The massive outages that affected BlackBerry email users on three continents last week may have been a miracle of bad timing, just after the iPhone launch, but they were only the most publicised of a string of more avoidable mistakes which are leaving users and developers at the end of their tether.
The most serious has been the botched operating system migration strategy – and only now, probably a year too late, has the firm addressed those errors, unveiling a hybrid BlackBerry/HTML5/QNX platform called BBX. This will not catapult RIM into the apps major league with Google and Apple, but it may preserve its core user and developer bases a little longer, perhaps long enough to carve out a new position in the evolving mobile web/cloud world.
That is, however, if RIM executes better on BBX, and the devices which will run it, than it has on QNX. The decisions along the way to a new operating system have been wrong so many times, that faith in the company is dwindling, despite some promising technologies and a very real affection for the BlackBerry service. But RIM has apparently learned nothing from the painful OS transitions of its rivals – Palm's to webOS, Nokia's to open Symbian and now WP7.
Yes, a new platform was needed to update the ageing BlackBerry OS for the world of the cloud, the browser and web apps. QNX was a good candidate and there was logic to keeping RIM's own system rather than following the Android route towards non-differentiation. But moving to a new OS was a huge gamble – QNX was more modern and web-oriented, to be sure, but incompatible with the existing apps base and, on its first product (the PlayBook) not even supporting the famous native email.
Palm had made the same gamble and lost, but RIM had some advantages over its former rival, notably the still-fierce loyalty of much of its business market. So, among several success factors, one was an obvious condition for the migration to succeed – RIM needed to keep its vital enterprise base happy.
This would enable it to introduce the new platform to a friendly audience, with the promise of new delights to keep corporations away from the Apple temptation; having kept its core base largely intact, it could then continue the process it has started, with offerings like BlackBerry Messenger, of building on its old strengths to attract consumer fans.
Instead, it went with a dual-OS strategy, upgrading BlackBerry OS, with all its creakiness, for the most important products, the phones, and showcasing QNX on the PlayBook tablet. This confused the developer base, especially as it became clear that there would be very few bridges between the two OSs. The leap to a new and incompatible platform is always one that requires great developer faith, and the PlayBook certainly did not instil that – it was a beta product rushed to market without RIM's absolute killer app, its native email, still the main reason anyone buys a BlackBerry product (even teenagers are seduced, mainly by the devices' excellent messaging capabilities, dressed up in less corporate clothing).
Having gambled that its customers wouldn't notice that email on a phone is no longer considered cutting edge, RIM has been playing catch-up with other features of the modern mobile web experience. Tablets were supposed to be the its saving grace, but it managed to launch PlayBook without native email – an idea which will probably sit alongside "Hey, let's merge with AOL" as one of the worst corporate decisions of all time. At the same time, many faithful BlackBerry users are increasingly suffering from app envy (Angry Birds anyone?) and more banks and law firms are starting to use rival iPhone and Android-based devices.
BBX debuts for phones and tablets
With this appalling history behind it, BBX can certainly benefit from far lower expectations than those which attended QNX and PlayBook. It plays many of the cards which RIM should have played for QNX, but frustratingly, a year too late and amid significantly deteriorating developer and carrier relations. It addresses the issue of the corporate base far more effectively than RIM did be-fore, preserving a life for legacy BlackBerry apps, supporting native email, and adding new and heavyweight features in key areas such as security and cloud services.
The new hybrid OS combines features of BlackBerry OS and QNX, co-CEO Mike Lazaridis told the BlackBerry developer conference in San Francisco. It will be the foundation of the company's software platforms for the future, along with BlackBerry Cloud Services. Developers will be able to choose RIM's native SDK and open source tools, or HTML5 with RIM's WebWorks, to build apps for BBX.
The company hopes that the move will help address the dearth of applications for QNX, which is due to replace the older OS on smartphones over time. It also puts to rest rumours that the PlayBook, and its standalone QNX system, would be killed off after disappointing sales. RIM hopes confidence in the tablet's future, and native email, will reawaken interest in the product (though confidence in the firm's own future would be helpful too).
However, even BlackBerry OS cannot boast anything like the range of programs of its main rivals – the wider choice for Android and iOS is one factor luring consumers and even RIM's heartland enterprise customers away from the BlackBerry family, whose share of the US smartphone sector fell to 20 per cent in the quarter to August, down from 25 per cent a year before.
RIM had intended to address the apps problem on QNX devices by allowing Android software to run in emulation mode, and that is still part of the strategy, but it clearly decided a longer life for native BlackBerry programs was required, even while the convergence of the tablet and handset platforms is accelerated to attract more developers.
A unified OS was not expected across the range for another year, but with Google re-harmonising Android and even Microsoft looking to Windows 8 to span PCs and tablets, simplicity is the order of the day. "Everything you build for BBX will run on everything we offer in the marketplace,” Lazaridis said.
He played up traditional RIM strengths such as enterprise class security. BBX also majors on cloud services, a hallmark of QNX, and has 100 open source libraries in its native environment, while also supporting Posix for a more open developer environment. The key bridge between BlackBerry OS and BBX will be HTML5, which RIM believes is the "future mass application platform".
The positive reaction from attendees at the conference must have been music to RIM's ears after months of little but criticism on all sides.
Julian White, CEO of development tools firm Seregon Solutions, told IDG that RIM needed to present a "coherent vision". He said that many developers were particularly impressed with Cascades, a native user interface framework acquired with Swedish company The Astonishing Tribe. Cascades, which developers hope to see applied to HTML5, is integrated into BBX and gives programmers access to low level APIs as well as higher level plug-and-play development.
Supporting the trend for "bring your own" smartphones in the workplace – a significant threat to the corporate BlackBerry contract – RIM will support a dual-profile system on all future handsets as well as the next PlayBook, allowing a "corporate partition" to keep enterprise apps and data separate from a user's personal activity. This will be integrated with BlackBerry Enterprise Server. There will also be a separate enterprise apps shelf in the BlackBerry App World store, which can be hosted by a company's BES and cannot be deleted by employees.
Like Google with its Chromebooks, RIM is looking towards a cloud-based world where users will access Microsoft applications and files from remote browser devices. It has announced a deal with Citrix to allow this to happen using the Citrix Receiver.
RIM may never be able to boast the sheer numbers of apps of the Android Market, but it claims its smartphones generate the highest ARPU per app in the market, and this is rising – BB7 phones deliver 11 times higher gross ARPU than their predecessors, while App World claims to be the second most profitable app store. RIM introduced a new developer program, BlackBerry Jam, with a Jam Community and Jam Zone, aiming to streamline the process for software writers.