The Boy Genius wrote a blog post on the state of RIM BlackBerry application development this morning that’s getting more than a little traction:
One word is where RIM fails so miserably it isn’t even imaginable: software.
You have to look at the big picture here… for what RIM is working with (an incredibly miserable Java OS with so much security and encryption and smoke-blowing APIs) they’ve hit the jackpot. Their OS architecture is fantastic, their use of security is what makes them so trustworthy. But, as each handset release comes closer and closer, people start to see the bigger picture. And that’s the fact that RIM’s OS is more than antiquated, it’s borderline laughable. But it works, you’re thinking, so what’s wrong? I’ve been saying this for years, but it wasn’t designed to do anything the BlackBerry does now. Imagine scotch taping car parts to a 200hp engine and see how far that gets you. Obviously, it’s just a viciously rough metaphor, but we believe a correct one.
There’s so many limitations to RIM’s OS, and even RIM’s data network that it offsets all the wonderful things they’ve managed to accomplish. Remember when people were so excited over leaked shots of OS 4.6 and I said somewhere it was just a theme? Well, was I wrong? Oh, look! OS 5.0! What changed? 99% nothing. Some functionality is added here and there, but the mobile phone landscape has changed so drastically in the last two years, that RIM, admittedly known to planning “three years out” looks to be unable to see the proper direction to head.
You can throw $1,000,000,000 at developers but you won’t get any if your OS, tools, and documentation are so bad, and that’s really in the end a lot of what I’m getting at. I was laying in bed at around 3AM early one morning recently, looking through the iPhone App Store and I came across EA’s Tiger Woods Golf. $4.99, why not? Wait, it’s 150MB? Wow, it must be good. I clicked purchase and literally 4 minutes later, Tiger Woods was installed and up on my screen. Granted I was on a high-speed Wi-Fi connection, but it made me realize more than ever that RIM has the most uphill battle of their lifetimes. When a BlackBerry application over 500k is considered “large”, something’s wrong. When TweetGenius is one of the first BlackBerry applications to do fun, unique things like transparent overlays, consistent shortcuts, and a straight forward UI, something is wrong.
The reason why this is so frustrating to me and I’m guessing many is because RIM literally almost has it all. They’ve got it! They are 90% there but that last 10% has become the most important. If you take Apple for example, and see their shortcomings, and then what they’ve done to fix them, it’s remarkable. It’s a completely different DNA than RIM’s but it’s working. In two years Apple has practically matched Research In Motion in almost every consumer area while having the most advanced mobile operating system with the most advanced mobile SDK on the planet. If Apple can do this in just two years and RIM has stood still, no one thinks that’s a problem?
Larry Dignan of ZDNet chimes in (I suspect he was going to the iPhone anyway):
The BlackBerry operating system issue struck home for me while on vacation. My Storm was my only ramp to the Web. Under stress and heavy usage the BlackBerry OS was clearly struggling. You could almost feel it choke when switching between apps, browsing and handling basic tasks. The interface was fine, but under the hood something is off.
Will these OS limitations affect my next phone choice when my Verizon Wireless contract is up? Possibly. The device is only 25 percent of the smartphone game these days. The operating system is everything. Apple gets it. Palm gets it. Google gets it. I’m not sure that Microsoft gets it. For RIM, it remains to be seen if the company gets OS religion.
For my next phone, I’ll be buying and OS instead of a device. If the iPhone comes to Verizon Wireless it’s most likely a no-brainer for me. I have more than a year to see if Palm’s Pre and WebOS is the real deal. Even the Motorola Android devices may hold promise for me. My last phone choice was basically an escape from Windows Mobile. If RIM doesn’t get its OS strategy together I may ditch the BlackBerry too. All I really need is to browse and tether to my laptop as a wireless card on a good network.
The real power behind the RIM brand is all the relationships they’ve built with communication providers and lock-in to the IT departments in business and government around the world. That said, there is a medium term danger that RIM is going to be undermined from the bottom by consumer-friendly devices such as the iPhone, in the same way that the PC undermined big iron’s lock on the enterprise market in the 80’s and 90’s.
I’m actively developing for the BlackBerry right now and I have to say it’s a struggle:
- setup of the development environment is non-obvious and fragmented
- it requires Windows; the cool kids are using Linux & Mac
- documentation is wildly incomplete and basically incorrect, since there’s so many references to obsolete technology
- how to transfer “normal” programming skills into the RIM environment is entirely non-obvious; it’s difficult even to figure out whether one can talk about there being a filesystem on the device
- Java ME is garbage. Yes, I went there.
My current application approach is to create an entirely self contained browser application and bypass almost all RIM UI features. We should know soon whether this is a sane approach (I may open source this code if there’s interest).