RIM: The end may not be nigh [opinion]

We’ve all heard the horror stories. BlackBerry maker Research in Motion is on the ropes – with low profit, a distinct lack of apps in their App World and ridiculous developer videos being published. That’s not even mentioning their current line-up of phones, which I think (along with BlackBerry OS 7) belong in 2006. All in all, before last week I was slating RIM like a lot of technology commentators.

But, since then, something has changed. My Twitter followers will know that I’m a web developer and I’ve been recently trying to break in to the mobile apps world, without too much success. So, when I found this offer I (and a few other CSP writers) jumped for it – the potential to get a free tablet *and* hundreds of pounds worth of development kit licences was a winning combination. Said tablet was, of course, a PlayBook, and it arrived last Monday.

At first, I hated it. It seemed so slow and sluggish after coming off the Nexus 7. But, I persevered, compensating for the mediocre array of apps in the App World and their pricing (5 pounds for Angry Birds? No thanks!) with a couple of sideloaded apps. Then, something strange happened. I wanted to check my emails and I had the Nexus 7 and the PlayBook in front of me. Before I could stop myself, I reached for the PlayBook. The reason?

Everything, quite simply, makes sense on the PlayBook. With the possible exception of Open webOS (a lot of the PlayBook OS design cues are reminiscent of the formerly Palm-owned OS), it is like nothing else out there. It packs a string of great features – a personal favourite of mine is the touch sensitive bezel that responds to swipes for multitasking and, believe it or not, is actually much better than the iOS or Android offerings that I’ve used in the past. There is a very strong master design that ties all the stock and native third party apps together – consider it like Ice Cream Sandwich where developers are encouraged to use the native controls rather than other libraries. The only areas in which the UI is let down are when the apps have been directly ported from Android without pretty much any changes (don’t get me wrong, they do boost the repertoire considerably) and the App Launcher, which has two paginating dots but all the apps are on one page. The other page is used for what I can presume is meant to be a “favourites” section (no widgets or folders present on the PlayBook unfortunately), but I wish that they had just used a standard layout.

Not everything is brilliant, however. The App World is mediocre, with limited apps and those that are present being overpriced – I can get Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I for £7.00, Blaq (pretty much the only Twitter client, although I intend to change that…) for £3 or Angry Birds Seasons for £5; I think I’ll just stick to using sideloaded Android apps! The UI, as mentioned earlier, is fairly slow coming off a device like the Nexus 7 or even my Galaxy S Advance and customisation options are limited.

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So, we’re looking at a good tablet with a few flaws then. So, what has the PlayBook done to make me less cautious about RIM’s future? Well, they appear to care about their developers and they want to fix things. In my conversation with the BlackBerryDev team on Twitter they were polite and helpful (as they should, really, but you don’t see Apple reaching out to developers on Twitter! Sure, they may have posted a, well, interesting music video for said devs on YouTube, but I suppose you can’t get everything right.

They have done things right on the SDK side, too. They’ve partnered with Marmalade, a game development SDK where I got my PlayBook from. The demand for the offer has been ‘unprecedented’ (according to an email I received off them), meaning that we should expect a lot of BB10/PlayBook games to be released over the next 6 months. Aside from that, you can develop using their C++ Cascades SDK or HTML5/JS WebWorks, which allows you to access native layouts from HTML5. I’m developing with Marmalade and WebWorks (separate apps) at the moment and, like the tablet, a lot of decisions made make sense – web developers can transition to the platform and use native-looking controls without having to learn a new language (yes, I know about Phonegap but it isn’t really native-looking).

As I’ve said earlier, the UI is beautiful and is set to be further refined with BB10. BB10, I hear you cry? But that’s delayed and delays have to be bad! Well, yes, I suppose that is true. I would like to hope that the extra time that RIM have given themselves to complete BB10 will result in an excellent operating system and some great devices to match the style and build quality of the PlayBook. After all, the build and design of the PlayBook are excellent, although I would have liked it to have a back not comprised solely of plastic.

All in all, I think that BB10 has great potential. If RIM play their cards right, they can build an operating system for people who want to get things done – the enterprise market, for example, may be compelled to halt the BYOD trend or, if that doesn’t work, said employees may even buy BlackBerry over other devices. Will it happen? I’m not sure, to be honest. All I know is that if RIM can’t get things right this time, then it could be goodnight vienna. Do I think they will get it right? Yes. Android, iOS and WP8 need a challenger and, unlikely as it seems, BB10 could do a pretty good job of it.

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