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BlackBerry ripening into mobile app platform

Research In Motion is working to make its BlackBerry platform friendly to developers, but an analyst says the company may face its share of challenges.

ATLANTA -- In the wake of several recent announcements, Research In Motion Ltd. is positioning the software that powers its popular BlackBerry handheld device as a developer-friendly platform for mobile applications, and the company is also committing to building a strong BlackBerry developer community.

Last week at the CTIA Wireless 2004 conference, RIM's Plazmic subsidiary announced the release of the Plazmic Content Developer's Kit v.3.7, which is intended to help developers tailor content for BlackBerry handhelds.

Anyone who has tried to mobilize apps using the Java interface in BlackBerry knows it's not easy, and it's not intuitive.
Kevin Burden

 The CDK includes a graphical authoring tool for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), which is the World Wide Web Consortium's XML-based standard for rich media content. It also includes a transcoder for converting Macromedia Flash files into SVG, as well as a simulator that allows developers to test and monitor the performance of content using a full copy of the BlackBerry Java Virtual Machine code translator.

RIM also announced a partnership with Sun Microsystems Inc. that will extend mobile Java Web services technology to the BlackBerry platform, ideally making it easier to customize enterprise applications for mobile devices using Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition (J2ME).

During an interview at CTIA, Mark Guibert, vice president of corporate marketing at Research In Motion, said the expanded Java capabilities are intended to spur internal development of Java-based applications for the BlackBerry platform.

"We want to provide the toolsets and, now that our subscriber base has grown to more than 1 million users, we have a critical mass that can support a developer community," Guibert said.

While Guibert said RIM recognizes the challenges that come with fostering the growth of a developer community, he said the company is willing to put the necessary resources behind the endeavor, including the creation of a business unit devoted to developer training.

Guibert said that RIM is working on a number of developer-focused initiatives, but that the company's focus will be on providing toolsets that take advantage of the BlackBerry platform without requiring RIM handhelds. This highlights the company's strategy to offer support for third-party devices that work with BlackBerry Enterprise Server, the back-end software that enables handhelds to send and receive e-mail, by integrating with messaging servers Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino.

Kevin Burden, program manager for smart handheld devices with International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said that committing to open standards like Java and Web services is a smart move, but it doesn't negate the fact that developing for RIM's platform can be difficult.

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 "Anyone who has tried to mobilize apps using the Java interface in BlackBerry knows it's not easy, and it's not intuitive," Burden said. "BlackBerry needs a little bit of help or encouragement to make it a platform that's easy to use," such as middleware offered by Extended Systems Inc. and others.

He said that, in most cases, when a PocketPC-based application is ported to Palm, about 70% of the code can be reused. But when such an application is ported to the BlackBerry platform, only about 10% of the code can be recycled, "and that's a huge problem," Burden said.

However, Burden said that the enterprise mobile device market is still young, and there could be an opportunity for RIM to grow BlackBerry as a development platform if the company commits to forging partnerships and providing useful development tools.

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