From cars to keyboards: How to deal with fragmentation the BlackBerry way

Summary:With two different screen sizes on the Z10 and Q10, do BlackBerry apps have to be different? No, but you might want a different approach for using them with a keyboard - or in a car.

This week, BlackBerry's flagship Z10 went on sale in the US — but it won't be the only BlackBerry 10 phone for long.

The Z10 will soon be getting company from the Q10, the BlackBerry 10-running handset with a physical keyboard and a correspondingly smaller screen. One of the questions about the pairing is how are the apps that look so good on the big screen Z10 going to fit onto its baby brother Q10? How many of the 100,000 apps for the Z10 are going to be ready for the Q10? Plenty, according to Chris Smith, VP for the BlackBerry Application Platform.

"For a lot of apps we don't want the developer to have to think about the form factor at all. For the screen, the horizontal dimension is the same so it's just the vertical dimension that's changing - it's on the order of two-thirds to three-quarters of the size. If you have a scrolling list, it just has to scroll a little further. If you have a layout with elements on the side, we auto adjust that for you to fit on the form factor. You use the same assets and the controls and the container just handles that for you. For many of the apps, developers will not have to do anything, they'll just work right out of the box."

If developers prefer, they can do a different layout for the different screen size. "You might want to put in some tweaks. You might decide when the screen is smaller, that you don't want users to scroll so you can put in another tab."

The approach will be the same when BlackBerry 10 comes to the PlayBook, Smith says. "Developers will keep the same application logic, the same core in their app and they'll be able to tweak the layouts for the particular form factor. We had the opportunity to think about what the portfolio and the roadmap looks like for us and we designed the tools and framework to prepare for that. We can scale your assets to any number of form factors but we want to standardise on a few and not have fragmentation across a whole range of form factors and aspect ratios."

The screen size isn't the only difference: the Q10 has 'type and go' commands that let you launch an app and start using it by typing (so you can type 'email Chris' to start an email addresses to Chris). Some form of that will come to the Z10, when BlackBerry decides on the best way to do it. But apps built to use 'type and go' will still work on the Z10, you'll just have to open them the usual way.

Getting the balance of automatic adjustments versus developer choice is important. "We don't want to diminish one side of the experience to reach a lowest common denominator, we'd rather make it easy for developers to take advantage of the feature without requiring them to do something special in the device," says Smith.

"There's an epic battle between developers and designers," adds product manager Tim Neil. "Designers want things pixel-perfect. If you ask them why they don't just make an icon bigger and let us scale it down, they say 'no, I can scale it better than anyone else can'."

Too many images and assets for different screen sizes packed into an app can make the app much bigger of course, especially when some of those screens are retina screen. "There's a tug of war between the code size and getting things exactly the way graphic designers see it," agrees Neil. "Most developers find some kind of balance. We try to do the work in the framework so you can choose what's best for you, whether you want to handle it with downsizing or design beautiful, perfect, pixel by pixel."

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Putting BB 10 into cars isn't just about screen size.

In the BlackBerry Experience Center on BlackBerry's campus in Waterloo, Ontario , a concept car (not the Porsche or Bentley models BlackBerry sometimes shows off, more a wooden cartoon car with a PlayBook tucked into the dashboard) is on display.

The QNX kernel inside BlackBerry 10 already powers a lot of in-car information systems. When BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins talks about mobile computing, the car is one of the mobile things he's thinking about. There are plenty of issues and regulations about what you can put on a screen inside a car so you don't distract the driver, so dealing with the different screen sizes inside different cars - like the 17-inch touchscreen in the Tesla Model S - won't be the only hurdle BlackBerry developers will have to deal with.

Taking apps to the car might be more about sharing content or transferring information, Neil suggests. BlackBerry 10 can access content on another connected BlackBerry directly (think Bridge on the PlayBook reading your BlackBerry emails or the screen sharing option in BBM Video).

"We have distributed processing, we have multiple screens. Where we believe we've got some interesting advantages is that these two things can connect and actually run as one virtual environment sharing each others' processes and doing crazy things. It opens up an interesting opportunity for device to device connections and integrating things when you get in the car beyond just displaying an app on the car screen."

Topics: BlackBerry, Mobile OS, Smartphones, Software Development, Tablets

About

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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