Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Blackberry Playbook

RIM introduced the "Playbook" tablet computer with much fanfare yesterday.It relies on Flash & HTML5 as the key development platforms. RIM was able to build the compatibility for existing apps on top of QNX which is good. It was smart to rely on the HTML5 platform given the poor UI capabilities in the existing Java framework, it wasn't clear if the tablet supported native game development despite the support for OpenGL in QNX platform.

The specs are great compared to the existing iPad, RIM did need some +ve hype at this point after the Torch fiasco. It is just 10mm thick compared to 13.4mm for the iPad and I thought iPad was thin. It has a 7" screen, but the resolution is 1024x600 whereas it is 1024x768 for the 9.7" iPad. Playbook also comes with a dual core 1GHZ processor compared to the single core CPU in iPad. Playbook also comes with front and back cameras and HD display with HDMI output compared with none for iPad. It also tethers with the Blackberry for 3G connection as opposed to the additional fees required for iPad. In short, RIM has upped the ante on the tablet front and we will probably see more from other Android OEMs in the short run.

The Playbook also has a few things going against it like the lack of native apps, GPS, 3G support and the introduction of a new OS which is not proven yet. The reliance on Blackberry for 3G can be both good and bad. Ultimately, the success would depend on how the marketing and messaging around this new device motivates app developers and users. eg. Palm OS was technicaly good on paper, still failed to succeed. The stock market reaction was not very strong either.

Related announcements on the software front also waived the fees for the developer program, introduced an ad platform (makes sense given that iPhone ad program has captures 1/5th of the mobile ad market) and open sourced the webworks platform. RIM is beginning to show leadership, but the key aspect is how it can integrate QNX into its legacy hardware and how it captures the consumer market. The playbook even though is technically advanced still plays to the enterprise market rather than the consumer market which has always been tough to crack for the Blackberry maker.

See this post for more details on specs etc.

Update 10/26.
RIM announced the SDK for Playbook development which is based on AIR. I was able to develop an app in under 30 minutes and deploy to the VM running QNX. There were no apps included in the OS, but there were some promising animations in the UI. You can also develop using Flex via the new Flash Builder Burrito beta which is pretty cool (even though it requires some workarounds). I'd rather wait for the upcoming HTML5 development option.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Mobile tech landscape

Just some personal thoughts from development and business perspectives:

Apple - iPhones and iOS; top of the line industrial design and beautiful user interfaces. Combine this with the maturity of the Mac OS platform, excellent native development tools and users willing to buy apps on AppStore this is a top platform to target. The requirement for Macs & to learn Objective-C are initial deterrents, but probably it just helps keep Windows developers away. The simple fact is that develepors will be where the money is and Apple Appstore is one place where open source hasn't yet taken away the revenues for indie developers. iPads have extended the success of iPhones, but has made it challenging for developers to target multiple screen sizes.

Android - This is one of the hottest mobile platforms; mainly because people equate this to PC vs Mac from the good old days. (open vs closed). The Android platform is indeed one of the most developer friendly mobile platforms out there, it is still Java based even though the native APIs are also open sourced. The level of freedom provided by the platform and the availability of source code are major advantages. The disadvantage for this platform is the variety of devices & screen sizes that needs to be supported and the fragmentation caused by some device vendors. Android 3.0 would also have better support for iPad like tablets.

Blackberry - This is the current platform of choice for business users, but it is not very attractive for consumers when compared to existing iOS & Android devices. Blackberry is a great "phone" and an "email reader". But, they are not the only features required to succeed in the smartphone race in consumer market. It recently upgraded the browser to Webkit which was long overdue. It's development platform is based on Java ME and produces chunky UI even if you try really hard not to. Blackberry OS 6.0 has improved, but still lacks several key features for the consumer market. eg. poor platform for games. In my personal opinion, RIM should have bought Palm, integrated WebOS UI and upgraded its CPU & hardware.

Palm - This was one of the over-hyped platforms that was technically superior, but failed to succeed as a business. HP bought Palm and is now coming up with the second version of WebOS. The platform is very developer friendly and is based on javascript. The developer workflow is similar to Ruby On Rails and is extremely productive. There is no clear differentitor for the product even though it is developer friendly which is probably why it failed to take off.

Microsoft - Windows Phone 7 is the latest entrant and is the underdog. Microsoft plans to spend a billion dollars promoting the new OS. Microsoft has recently lost the advantages it had in the business market via Windows Mobile as well. Unfortunately, Microsoft still doesn't seem to get it. For example, it is the only smartphone in the above list which doesn't include the Webkit browser. Perhaps, a standards compliant IE9 is good enough, but obviously it wouldn't include any of the webkit specific features that advanced mobile sites will make use of. But, the strategy is definitely in line with the Microsoft agenda of coming late to a market with proprietary stuff and taking over it. The native development platform is based on .NET/Silverlight technologies. In this case, no one expects Microsoft to succeed though.

Summary - Mobile devices & other touch devices are here to stay. Hardware is fast becoming a commodity nowadays. eg. what more can you pack in a smartphone except more power? :) So, there has to be some other differentiator for the winner. eg. apps, games, books, music, subscriptions. Smartphone platforms tend to be more sticky due to the above. Users might avoid switching platforms since they don't want to lose the apps or other content they have already bought rather than the hardware itself.

Unlike the open source free software mentality in the desktop world, there are a variety of appstores that help developers make money. But, the question is whether the money in the appstores are sufficient to sustain a business or not.
Apple customers are more willing to spend money on software than others, so its appstore would continue to attract developers for sometime even if the number of users are more for other platforms.
Still, it is widely expected that Android will succeed over the long run due to the sheer number of OEMs that produce devices based on Android.
Blackberry has to significantly change its strategy in the consumer market (instead of producing copycat devices) to succeed.
Microsoft will most likely be relegated to niche markets despite the marketing push.
Are developers going to produce native applications on all these platforms? Definitely not.