New browser, platform enhancements juice up BlackBerry

SAN FRANCISCO--With an increasing number of developers focusing their attention on the iPhone and Android operating systems--Android project starts alone jumped 94 percent between September and October, according to analytics provider Flurry--there is growing sentiment that BlackBerry could end up the odd man out. Just last week, The Wall Street Journal asked "Is BlackBerry in danger of becoming the AOL of the mobile device market?" contending Research In Motion has failed to build a robust web browser to compete with rival smartphones while adding that its historical dominance in the enterprise is eroding. But the deluge of developer-friendly initiatives announced here at BlackBerry Developer Conference 2009 makes it clear that RIM has no intention of sliding into irrelevance: The device maker touted an exhaustive series of new services platforms and extensions as well as new and expanded partnerships engineered to make creating BlackBerry apps simpler and more profitable.

"We've been beavering away on a lot of things these last couple of years," said RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie during his opening keynote Monday morning. "This is not about thousands of islands of applications. It's about deep, rich integration to enable transformative experiences. Our view is that we have an environment with tremendous possibilities for contextualization."

Chief among RIM's announcements: A new WebKit-based browser capable of full HTML rendering, scheduled to debut "not too far into 2010," Balsillie said. The new browser follows on the heels of RIM's August acquisition of WebKit solutions developer Torch Mobile, creator of the Iris web browser for mobile and embedded devices. RIM also promised a new services platform enabling developers to integrate mobile advertising efforts, payment options, geo-location awareness and push services for alerts and content updates, and added it plans to open some core APIs to enable Messenger and media player integration as well. "You said you wanted deeper native APIs, and we heard you," Balsillie said.

The announcements kept coming. Enhancements to the BlackBerry Application Platform include support for OpenGL ES to bolster development of 3D games and graphics, an upcoming Java GUI builder to accelerate development of user interfaces for BlackBerry apps, and a new BlackBerry Theme Studio to enable the creation of smartphone themes. In addition, developers can sell those themes via BlackBerry App World, which RIM said will introduce carrier billing and in-app payment options in 2010.

Adobe Systems president and CEO Shantanu Narayen joined Balsillie to announce creative professionals and developers can now use Adobe Flash Platform technology and Adobe Creative Suite content development and authoring tools to build BlackBerry apps. Future versions of Adobe Creative Suite starting with Adobe Creative Suite 5 will enable creation of BlackBerry-optimized graphic assets like image and video content from tools including Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe After Effects--Adobe Dreamweaver, Adobe Fireworks and Adobe Device Central software will also support creation and testing of BlackBerryWidgets and web content. "Our customers tell us that innovation is taking place on smartphones," Narayen said.

While Narayen emphasized innovation, Balsillie time and again returned to the theme of transformation--transformative user experiences were the headline of his keynote, but the BlackBerry platform's transformation into a more expansive and more lucrative developer sandbox was the deeper message he conveyed. "You want new services and contextualization, and you want applications to interrelate with each other," he said. "We believe this is the promised land in mobility." -Jason