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Interview: RIM’s Mike Kirkup on BlackBerry PlayBook Development

IMG_3565Mikekirkup

I always enjoy talking to Mike Kirkup, Director of Developer Relations @RIM, about the future of the BlackBerry platform. We got some great information from the Developer Panel he ran at BlackBerry World with Chris Smith, Senior Director for the BlackBerry Development Platform. I had the opportunity to speak to Mike again this past Friday about one of the new BlackBerry OS 7 APIs and had a chance to ask him some BlackBerry PlayBook developer questions. Here is what I found out…

Q: Is RIM choosing to limit BlackBerry PlayBook app distribution to App World or will it be expanded in the future?

Mike told me that RIM is actually changing course here based on fragmentation complaints from developers. RIM’s decision to make App World the only channel for BlackBerry PlayBook apps was done on purpose. Mike said this was because developers were dealing with fragmentation where “success in one of the many app stores did not translate into progress in the other.” RIM is walking a fine line in this case between the Apple “Walled Garden” approach and the Android and previously BlackBerry approach of “Come One Come All.”

I pointed out to Mike that there is definitely a valid need for allowing other forms of installation beyond App World and he agreed with me. RIM is planning on a sort of Enterprise App World that they hinted to at BlackBerry World to distribute applications to specific PlayBooks using some sort of private enterprise catalog. I told Mike that this still does not solve some of the very valid use cases like beta testing applications before publishing them. I also mentioned that sideloading is becoming a usual thing and he said there is actually a use case for sideloading with hardcore users. All in all this is an interesting change for RIM and I am not sure exactly how it will play out.

Q: What strategy do you recommend for current BlackBerry Java developers when it comes to the BlackBerry PlayBook?

Mike reiterated to me that a “Proper Java Environment is still in the works though RIM is committed to the native SDK.” The BlackBerry PlayBook has put RIM in an interesting situation where their core developer base of Java Developers cannot currently create PlayBook apps using that same skill set. RIM is planning on releasing a Java Player by the end of the year that will allow the PlayBook to run BlackBerry smartphone Java Apps but this is not the proper Java environment for the BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX.

Mike told me that RIM realizes they need to choose a Java environment that can “take RIM for the next 10 years of growth.” In other words that means the current J2ME based Rimlets are out the door. My guess is we will see something more like Androids Davlik in the future for the PlayBook.

Q: If that is the case what is the current message RIM is sending to Java developers? What platform on the PlayBook should companies develop their app in? AIR? WebWorks? Wait for Android/Java Players? Native SDK?

Mike said I am looking at the question from the wrong direction. From RIM’s perspective they are trying to make the BlackBerry PlayBook an attractive development platform for many different types of developers. He said the PlayBook is a new experience for RIM since they are not the main source of information and community like the case is for AIR and WebWorks developers. The BlackBerry Java community could only get its information from RIM but these developers come from a larger circle.

I did get Mike to concede that Java developers will need to make a choice for now if they want to make a PlayBook app until RIM brings a Java environment. I am not sure if that decision should be WebWorks, AIR, or waiting for the Native SDK or Android Java player…

Q: Will the Native SDK for the BlackBerry PlayBook include a UI (User Interface) framework?

This is a key question I have been asked by many developers and it seems like the answer is no for now. When RIM first releases the Native SDK it is really geared at gaming which is why RIM is working so hard to get game engine developers to port their platforms. The only real framework at the Native SDK launch will be OpenGL as we know.

On the other hand Mike did reiterate that a UI framework will be coming for the BlackBerry PlayBook. It is just not the first purpose for the Native SDK. This means that app developers will not gain the full benefit of the native SDK since they will have to write their own engine to draw each pixel on the screen… I wonder if there are any current QNX frameworks you could us. :) This led to my next question of…

Q: Will the new native SDK allow for using elements between the different environments? (Flash/WebWorks) For example, we always see the QNX uses in other devices and the UI is created in AIR/Flash…

I was curious if the upcoming Native SDK would allow developers to mix and match between the different elements in the different environments. I asked Mike if it would be possible to create a UI in AIR and then have the application logic written in C. He told me that not only is it possible but some of the current BlackBerry PlayBook apps are written that way. :) He said it is not going to be the supported use case due to some quirks/limitations but it is possible.

Q: When will RIM be allowing BlackBerry PlayBook developers to break out of the app sandbox. We see the framework with notifications, invoking other apps, background services, etc but currently they are limited. When will those limits be removed?

Ever wonder if you BlackBerry PlayBook app can run in the background when you start the device and then check the weather every hour and leave a notification? Right now that is not possible because RIM has not opened up the APIs but you can tell the functionality is there. I asked Mike when we will be seeing this functionality open up and he said it is coming soon. RIM is building the “Robust Platform” and will be opening up its capabilities to allow for invoking other services and engaging between apps.

Q: On a side note what happened to the BlackBerry Smartphone simulators for Mac? We now have the Eclipse plugins but not the Simulator.

The Mac simulators are still coming!

Q: Last but not least what is the best way for BlackBerry developers to provide feedback to RIM? 

Developers are an opinionated bunch and have many ideas on how to improve the BlackBerry platform but they don’t want it to fall on deaf ears. I asked Mike what is the best way to bring something to RIM’s attention and he said it is a combination of the BlackBerry Developer Forums and the Bug Tracker. He said that if there is a specific bug that RIM needs to fix the bug tracker is the way to go. RIM now has a solid team that is dedicated to cleaning up that queue as fast as possible. If you have something that is farther reaching like an API that you want expanded or just want to rant about the complex Code Signing process or how the PlayBook APIs are the best thing since sliced bread then the forums are the way to go. He said that many of the threads end up on his desk.

We got some great updates from Mike on the development of the BlackBerry PlayBook platform. Let us know if we missed anything!

6 total comments on this postSubmit your comment!
  1. A lot of avoided answers it seems, and mixed signals. I was really counting on integration of AIR with native sdk for the next iteration of bbssh, but now I read that it will work but “isn’t supported”. Does this mean I’m going to be on my own in terms of figuring out how to actually implement it?

    The closest thing I’ve found so far is adobe’s native extension documentation. I was going to start down that path – until I read more closely. Adobe’s docs seem to say it is only supported on air tv platforms, and RIM isn’t talking about it at all. So now I’m not able to start the project, due to lack of info.

    I expected PB development to become less frustrating over time, but all of these unknowns and half-answers are only serving to make it more so.

  2. for me as a java developer of very pretentious business apps ( super apps ) I really like the progress of OS6 / OS7 and I hope that there will be a way to move / port this to the PB.
    hopefully upcoming Java SDK (for the next 10 yrs) won’t be a ‘normal’ Android. From my POV RIM’s power are robust and secure applications and should be different – that’s more then a me-too-Android. RIM can become a unique player besides Apple and Microsoft for Smartphones and Tablets.
    lets see what the future brings…

  3. I would like to include the following questions:

    1. When will we see full integration with native and third party apps?

    2. When is universal search coming?

  4. Great interview Ronen. It would be nice if some answers weren’t so tight lipped. But like they say, time will truly tell.

  5. Still not any interesting news. I give PlayBook 6 months to be ready to fight. Just wait till the end of this year anyway.

  6. Would like to know why so many apps are taking weeks to be approved.

    That matters to both developers and potential customers.

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