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RIM has marked the start of its BlackBerry World conference by announcing the release of the developer kit for the much-delayed BlackBerry 10 operating system and handing out crippled prototype handsets that should go on sale by the end of the year.

"We’re extremely excited to release the BlackBerry 10 developer beta tools for general use,” said Christopher Smith, VP of handheld application platform and tools at RIM. “Developers can use this first beta of the tools to get started building apps for BlackBerry 10 and as the tools evolve over the coming months, developers will have access to a rich API set that will allow them to build even more integrated apps."

The download includes BlackBerry 10 Native SDK with Cascades that can handle C++ or QML code. A WebWorks SDK is included for HTML 5 and CSS development, with JavaScript bindings built in, and there's a beta version of a plug-in to allow limited Visual Studio development. The initial API bundle includes push management controls, payment systems, LED and battery control, and some gaming features.

The point of all this is to get a whole host of applications ready to go when the final hardware carrying the new operating system is released, hopefully by the end of the year for the crucial fourth quarter sales peak. RIM seems to have recognized that the lack of apps is a major turnoff for customers and is hoping the 2,000 developers attending the conference in Orlando can rectify that.

Attendees also were also given a BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha handset to play with, although it's not capable of voice calls as yet (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth only) and uses a stripped down PlayBook GUI that should be changed before the final release. The handset comes with a 4.2-inch screen (larger than the iPhone 4S's 3.5 inches) capable of 1280×768 resolution, along with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage.

The hardware keyboard, a feature much beloved by many existing BlackBerry users, has been replaced with a software version and a new style of typing that uses predictive text and swiping motions to speed up wordage, as shown in the traditional promo video.

These devices are very much prototype designs, and look more like a PlayBook that has shrunk in the wash rather than a final product. But RIM is hoping there's enough there to get developers started, and hinted that the final screen resolution may stand, which visually would make the devices stand out. Whether they are desirable enough to tempt people for their Jesusphones is another thing entirely.

The company is also eyeing the Asian market, with a coding initiative designed to get Chinese university students writing applications for the platform. It will be distributing code and handsets to several universities and looking to find the best applications for the automotive and "mobility lifestyle" markets. ®

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