BlackBerry Tablet OS is an Invitation to Developers

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There’s a reason why RIM unveiled its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet at a developer event; it’s because the device is the company’s best shot at greatly expanding its developer base well beyond the 300,000 or so developers it now has. By adding a new operating system in the BlackBerry Tablet OS, built atop the recently acquired QNX technology, RIM has a new and extremely powerful way to reach out to the new king makers in the mobile ecosystem.

Some, including my colleague James Kendrick, have wondered if a two-platform strategy would weigh down RIM and just add more confusion for developers, forcing them to choose which OS to write for. But in listening to QNX and RIM executives talk about the PlayBook, they see the underlying OS as a way to court way more coders than they ever have before without forcing anyone to choose.

While RIM isn’t talking about this, Tablet OS could be the future of all BlackBerry devices. The more I hear about the OS, the more I think that’s where the company is eventually headed. The Tablet OS, through a Java virtual machine, should enable all the existing Java developers who write Java apps for current BlackBerry devices to write them for the PlayBook. The Tablet OS will also handle web apps through WebWorks, BlackBerry’s new platform that utilizes familiar web technologies like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. That explodes the number of developers that can write for the Tablet OS by drawing in programmers who aren’t dedicated to mobile. Palm’s webOS also offers web developers the same access and that hasn’t resulted in a huge flood of apps, so we’ll have to see how this fares.

The Tablet OS also supports Adobe Flash and AIR apps, so RIM can tap the estimated 3 million Flash developers out there. That also means that some existing Adobe apps will be available on day one of PlayBook sales or will need minimal porting to be ready. The Tablet OS will also offer its own software development kit in the coming weeks for developers who want to dive deeply into the operating system. This will appeal to more hardcore C developers, but it might be enticing because the PlayBook will support the OpenGL API, which will enable high-quality, 3-D graphics. This is all made possible by the QNX-based operating system, which is very modular and allows for easy integration of different environments, and means that Tablet OS could integrate other languages easily in the future. It could potentially support Android apps down the road if RIM chose to. Unlikely, yes, but the platform is that flexible, and it gives RIM options.

The architecture offers a lot of openness but also extreme stability because many of the processes are protected from each other and aren’t allowed to threaten the operations of the OS. What this all boils down to is an open invitation for developers to start building more apps for RIM. Right now, there’s a somewhat paltry number of BlackBerry App World apps (just 10,000) compared to the Apple App Store (250,000+) and Android Market (estimated 100,000+). Now developers have a modern and powerful OS that offers many ways to write apps for it.

Whether they respond is another matter. They’ll want to see how it performs, and what the business prospects are. By the time PlayBook launches, the iPad and other Android tablets will have even more momentum and will be even bigger draws for developers. I talked to several developers at BlackBerry DevCon, and they told me they’re really excited about the power and versatility of the new operating system and see it as a refreshing turning point for RIM. The prevailing mantra these days claims RIM will suffer a long slide, but this modern, new Tablet operating system offers the company the best hope to engage new developers, and ultimately set a new course for its entire lineup.

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