Most of the time, computers sit there waiting for you to ask them to do something. Phones tell you when they have something you care about. Most smartphones are more like a computer when it comes to anything apart from phone calls and text messages. You don’t necessarily want an alert for every email and RSS article and tweet you get, but in general smartphone apps don’t take much advantage of the fact that not only is your smartphone connected, it’s always connected.
Nearly all smartphones have push email now; so far only iPhone and BlackBerry support push for apps in the same way. One of the announcements at RIM’s BlackBerry developer conference this week was that push would be free for developers to use, which should lead to a plethora (in the literal sense) of applications pushing information and alerts at you as developers and users find out what works.
The advertising and payment interfaces mean we’ll see free apps paid for by advertising or by selling you subscriptions to extra levels and features as well as apps you can buy by putting the cost on your mobile phone bill. In both cases what RIM offers developers that other smartphones don’t is not just the programming interface for showing adverts and accepting payments; RIM has gone out and done the hard work of negotiating with carriers and ad networks and signing all the paperwork. The payment terms haven’t been announced, so it’s not clear what RIM’s cut will be but every developer we spoke to talked about the payment and ad APIs as the best thing since sliced bread because it gives them a revenue stream and a global scope they could never achieve on their own, and they like the fact that the ad system comes with analytics (provided by Omniture, the recent acquisition by RIM’s new best friends at Adobe).
That might be easier for RIM than for any other manufacturer, because the carriers like RIM. Not only do BlackBerry subscriptions bring the carriers a steady extra revenue stream, but RIM understands that mobile bandwidth isn’t unlimited; 3G on the BlackBerry doesn’t just use less power in terms of the battery, it’s very economical on bandwidth because the server pushes information rather than the device polling until it gets an answer, because of the compression it uses and the way the connection is set up and torn down, which RIM can do because it controls both ends of the connection (from the BIS or BES). There aren’t many handset companies who remind developers in a keynote speech that the carrier network is a scarce resource and it’s really important that applications be architected to protect those networks from excessive traffic (which senior VP Alan Brenner said on Monday).
That close relationship will get RIM more advantages in future. Chatting with vice president Tyler Lessard, who describes his job as managing RIM’s global developer relations and partner program, we asked about what RIM had learned over the years. Although he talked about passing on RIM’s experience writing apps and creating user interfaces, he also emphasised what the carriers have to offer; have the same conversation with other smartphone OS vendors and the phrase ‘big dumb pipe’ would be hanging in the air. “There is an incredible amount of value carriers bring to the community,” Lessard said; “ not just the network infrastructure and the bandwidth but the billing infrastructure and the customer relationships. They have they’ve spent many years understanding who their customers are, what their interests are and they can leverage that for good of the developers.”
Networks, he pointed out, are starting to offer their own APIs. But you have to be a developer the size of RIM to be happy supporting dozens of different APIs to offer the same feature on every network; that’s why location didn’t take off on phones a decade ago - well, that and the fact that the carriers wanted to charge for every location enquiry… As with ads and charging for your app on the phone bill, RIM can abstract all those APIs into one of its own. “We're working with carriers to understand what are the consistent things we able to offer from a network level,” said Lessard. The next big thing? Presence. As carriers introduce services that let you tell if I have my phone on, or if I'm in a call, RIM can build an API that lets developers do presence as simply as they can now to location.
The other really big thing RIM is doing, which developers will spend tomorrow discussing (with various levels of heat) is allowing third party services to be shared between apps. At the moment, if Shazam or Nobex wants to use the 7Digital music store in their app, they negotiate a deal and do the integration. In the future, third-party services like 7Digital or Vlingo’s voice recognition or Big Tin Can’s customised notification could be something any app could use the same way they can now plug into the BlackBerry calendar application. Next year RIM will introduce a third-party marketplace where developers can just plug into each other’s services. Like everything else RIM announced this week, it’s a really different direction from what the other smartphone systems are offering. James Shannon, the CTO of DevelopIQ (the company behind 7Digital) told us that they chose to build their store on BlackBerry only “because BlackBerry offered us the most compelling APIs and the best platform to take music to the next level”. It’s going to be interesting to see if the new options make other developers agree with him.