BlackBerry Bets Against Native Apps (Again)

While Apple iOS and Google Android have attracted hundreds of thousands of apps, BlackBerry remains stuck at some single-digit percentage of that number.

Is it that BlackBerry users don’t have the same appetite for apps that other smartphone users have? That would seem highly unlikely. It seems much more plausible that BlackBerry users have not been habituated to apps because there are so few of them, and frankly many BlackBerry apps aren’t that great.

The primary reason is that software developers shy away from building native BlackBerry apps. The platform is simply much more difficult to develop for than Apple iOS and Android. Some real examples:

1. Multiple Versions/Devices: It’s hard to make one BlackBerry app that will work well for all BlackBerry devices — there’s little standardization among RIMM devices. The “smartphone” BlackBerrys are touchscreen, whereas the other ones use a scroll-ball to move a cursor and make selections. There’s not even a standardization of screen sizes, which makes layout difficult and time consuming. To understand the issue in about one second, take look at the BlackBerry Operating System version chart on Wikipedia.

2. Testing: You can test your code on a simulator in the computer — but each simulator download is 150 MB (!) per device — multiply that times the devices on the above OS chart.

3. Internet Connectivity: Getting a connection to the Internet from your app is not at all straightforward. BlackBerry is designed for security, which means that all of your Internet could be running through a central proxy somewhere. This becomes problematic for development as the app code must probe and prod in order to figure out the best means of connecting to the Internet to fetch data from any sort of Internet-hosted datastore.

4. Debugging: In iOS, the development cycle is:
– change code
– click button
– watch the app load on the device and verify your code change

Now here’s the comparative debugging process for BlackBerry:

Change code, click button, watch your app get sliced in to 64kb pieces, a window prompts for your encryption password, each 64kb is signed by TWO signing servers (meaning that you need to wait for about 40 requests/responses for even a meagerly-sized app — making a build at the end of the day? forget it — the signing servers are too busy to handle all those requests; watch your e-mail box as RIMM e-mails you for every single piece that was signed (hundreds of e-mails); wait for the device to completely reboot; wait for the debugger to attach; then dig through the menus to find the “Downloads” icon to actually launch the app; then, as standard operating procedure, the debugger throws two or three error windows for which you are recommended to “ignore” per the RIM documentation; then you may check your code changes.

Bottom line: Development for BlackBerry is complex for UI, complicated for developers, resource intensive for computers, and time-consuming to test versus the Apple and Android environments.

Not surprisingly, BlackBerry has begun taking the position that native apps are a fad (see the article RIMM co-CEO interview with Barron’s this week), much like the AOL proprietary service was.

RIM’s position is that Web-based apps will dominate in the future. But only time will tell if it is right. At least for now, consumers continue to embrace the use of proprietary apps.

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Tobias Dengel is CEO of WillowTree Apps Inc., a mobile applications developer. He is also BIA/Kelsey’s new technical editor and will be posting regularly on mobile-related topics. The views he expresses are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of BIA/Kelsey.

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