BlackBerry goes with the flow for developers

The BlackBerry platform's focus on collaboration between apps helps it stand out in a crowded market, says Alan Brenner, the RIM executive in charge of the platform

As Research In Motion opens up the BlackBerry platform, providing new features and integration between third-party apps and core BlackBerry apps, ZDNet UK spoke to RIM's Alan Brenner, the general manager for the platform.

We asked Brenner how BlackBerry competes in the crowded smartphone app market, how the handset manufacturer expects to work with developers, and what the key challenges are for the company's mobile platform.

Q: Where do you think the new APIs and the integration into core BlackBerry apps put the BlackBerry as a platform, compared with other smartphones?
A: The important point is that we're different; we have a different approach from what you're seeing elsewhere in the market. This notion of enabling deep integration is distinctive, and it speaks to our traditional strength as BlackBerry — which is we make the applications work together, and their functionality is orchestrated around users' needs and tasks and objectives, rather than [around] the features of an application.

It's that focus on collaboration among the applications that we think is the most interesting aspect of what we're trying to enable developers to do. That style of platform architecture is very interesting to many developers.

The thing that has fooled most of the industry about mobile computing is it is sui generis; it is not just an extension of the computing architecture and models and programming paradigms of the desktop. Look at most of the other platforms out there — they remain in many cases very clever adaptations of traditional desktop computing models to mobile devices. I really think we're different.

BlackBerry is a full-blown mobile experience, because what's distinct about mobile is the constrained usage, the constrained input-output models, the time and attention constraints — you're mostly doing it out of peripheral vision. So the workflow in BlackBerry apps — the BlackBerry flow story — is more applicable to mobile constraints than the conventional desktop [models], because they require too much work to get across the applications to implement a particular task.

In mobile devices, all apps are peripheral; there are no sovereign applications. The desktop is built for sovereign apps by and large. The web is kind of different; the web is kind of a 'tweener'.

When you say BlackBerry 'flow', is that a reference to the idea of 'flow state', where you don't notice time passing, but you're getting a lot done?
Which is how BlackBerry is. We definitely think of 'flow' for both reasons. Once you're up to speed on using BlackBerry, the flow of the user's attention drifts across the apps, and they don't even notice it. It also connotes the way APIs enable the apps to transfer control and data between themselves.

You've talked about offering 'information in context'. This comes out of the location and the estimated time-of-arrival interface you're offering, based on your Dash navigation acquisition, and the integration between BlackBerry and third-party applications. That's a powerful idea, but is it something developers are interested in working with? Is it something users want?
The Dash algorithms mash up historical and real time and crowd-sourced data. Think of the things you can do with it.

This is the beauty of the context model; practically everybody we explain this idea to, within a few seconds starts conjuring up these opportunities... I can't think think of a better catalyst for an enthusiastic, engaged, productive developer community than the notion of 'context'.

The announcement we made [at the BlackBerry Developer Conference] is a first round of initiatives to catalyse the 'context' thought process in our developer community. I don't have anything more to announce, but you can imagine that we're motivated...

...to continue to lay pipe so the apps that get built for BlackBerry are context aware, that we enable them with platform elements and interfaces into our applications that position them to exploit knowledge about the user and the user's context that make a more potent and feature-dense user experience.

That's the thing about mobile. You're so constrained in terms of time and attention and input and output ability that the device has to do the work for you — where the devices are representative of the system behind it. We look at that in one way as an application problem but the more strategic way we look at it it's a platform problem, so our partners can join with us providing a more orchestrated, intelligent, context-aware experience.

I've been talking to developers and they're pretty excited; they see the promise. You're adding [Google] Gears to your platform, you're opening up areas of BlackBerry that have been locked down.

How do you balance offering more integration and more options to developers with keeping the BlackBerry secure?
It is a journey. I think we're very aware of the need to manage that balance, because our core value propositions include unmatched focus on platform and device security. Our customer base reflects that focus, so we would never do anything that would put at risk the market capital we built up around security of the platform.

A chain is as strong as the weakest link. We are quite focused on leaving no holes in the wall around the security of the product.

That said, from day one we have been extraordinarily adept at making [BlackBerry] convenient, functional, capable while being secure. Make it open enough, useful enough, convenient enough for people to get into the flow of the experience, at the same time protecting the assets of the user — that's an interesting challenge we have really worked over the years to be distinctive about.

Apart from the iPhone, every smartphone platform has a diversity of devices and capabilities. How do you make that work as you introduce your new features?
Whenever we introduce a new release, we do support updates to existing in-market product. How far back we go depends on the release. We do recognise that's a requirement to be competitive.

That said, at the same time we're growing very rapidly. Our installed base doubles every year, every 15 months or so. People keep their devices a long time, but our subscriber community is growing so rapidly that most people are carrying new devices.

What's the biggest challenge for RIM itself, and for how you work with developers?
One of the challenges we are mastering is the growth in scope. Three or four years ago, we were more or less an enterprise app company, more or less delivering our own applications — today, we serve all markets: enterprise, SMB, consumer. Three or four years ago, we were in North America — now we're global, working in 170 countries, with 500 carriers.

Those numbers speak to the growth and diversity we have to address to be a good supplier. We've had to internalise the diversity. If you look at the BlackBerry Alliance Program, how it's grown up to engage the developers — we've become the kind of company it takes to do this.