Will RIM ever simplify BlackBerry app development?

Jason Ankeny

Given surging consumer interest in iPhone and Android, it's no surprise that the two platforms are the focus of so much developer energy as well. A survey conducted late last year by mobile software platform provider Appcelerator found that heading into 2011, 91 percent of developers said they are "very interested" in creating apps for iPhone, with 82 percent expressing comparable enthusiasm for Android--the dropoff is steep from there, however, with only 34 percent of developers maintaining serious interest in writing for Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry. But subscriber demand for iPhone and Android isn't the sole reason developers are so lukewarm on BlackBerry: By most accounts, building BlackBerry apps is a far more challenging and frustrating task than creating solutions for rival platforms. With the launch of RIM's forthcoming PlayBook tablet drawing closer, developer angst is once again percolating--and RIM's response to the developer community is drawing criticism as well.   

Late last week, developer Jamie Murai posted an open letter to RIM's Developer Relations team on his blog, announcing his intention to scrap his PlayBook app aspirations. "Considering how terribly designed the entire process is, from the registration right through to loading an app into the simulator, I can only assume that you are trying to drive developers away by inconveniencing them as much as humanly possible," Murai writes, going on to cite a laundry list of complaints including the cost of BlackBerry App World registration (soon jumping to $200, compared to $99 for Apple's [NASDAQ:AAPL] App Store and $25 for Google's [NASDAQ:GOOG] Android Market), the headaches of downloading multiple app SDKs and simulators, excessive and confusing documentation, and intrusive requests for personal information, most notably RIM's insistence on receiving a notarized statement of identification form. "You have succeeded in your quest of driving away a perfectly willing developer from your platform," Murai closes. "On a more serious note, being the underdog, you need to make your process AT LEAST as simple as Apple's or Google's, if not more so. You need to make your tools AT LEAST as good as Apple's or Google's, if not more so. You have failed at both."

Once the Murai tirade went viral, RIM quickly responded to the controversy, with BlackBerry Developer Relations and Developer Program head Tyler Lessard writing a detailed reply on the Inside BlackBerry Developer's Blog. "The concerns [Murai] described were completely fair--in fact, they include some of the priority items that we've been working to improve prior to [PlayBook's] final gold release," Lessard states. "One example that directly relates to Jamie's feedback is that if you register an account on our Developer Zone web site, you can sign in with that account and download all of our tools without needing to re-enter your information several times. However, we're going to work on improving the download steps for those of you who just want to get at the tools without registering an account. I apologize that this was overlooked up until now." Lessard also explains RIM continues to refine its BlackBerry App World vendor protocols. "[We] remain committed to ensuring developers can register and submit apps at no cost," he writes. "We will also review the requirement to have a Notary as this has come up as a challenge for some members of our community recently. I'm grateful this was brought to our attention."

Developer reaction to Lessard's blog post was swift and severe. "The idea that you'd send people off to a notary is just laughable," reads one response in the Inside BlackBerry comments thread. "I'm now thinking that your senior management people are actively opposed to creating a developer community. Not just indifferent, but they really, deeply don't want it to happen." Another developer writes "Everything in the blog post was a problem with RIM for several years now. The download/installation/signature/deployment process was long and painful from the start; the fact that it's long and painful on the PlayBook as well is no surprise... The [BlackBerry] platform is just as bad despite having been developed for years and years. There's so much work to be done that frankly I don't see how RIM is going to even make a dent there." Still another adds "RIM's customer-facing products are very good, but the development software stack is, to put it mildly, a malfunctioning, ugly mess. It's not just that the tools have poor documentation and require expertise--we are programmers after all, so we can deal with that... but they are broken from the moment of install, and it all goes downhill from there." And one more: "How hard is it to at least offer the level of convenience every other popular mobile OS/API does? If RIM can't offer that, then why should I develop for them anymore?"

The problem isn't just that the BlackBerry development process is so fraught with obstacles--it's that so many developers seem to have lost faith in RIM's ability to improve the situation. The ramifications are clear: The longer the company waits to implement a more streamlined, less complex developer platform, the more developers are going to transition to iOS and Android. Maybe the question isn't if RIM can simplify BlackBerry application development so much as it is whether developers will still care if and when it finally does happen. -Jason