A common complaint I've often heard with BlackBerry apps is that they are often not very attractive. Part of the problem lies with the native BB API: the UI elements are fairly minimal and unattractive. I suppose this was fine when we had low-res phones, but this is no longer excusable in the iPhone era. For example, there is no tabbed panel widget, font picker, color picker nor (until OS 5) a way to put icons on a standard menu. It's not impossible to write attractive BB apps, but we could probably use more people who have an eye for attractive UIs. So where would we find such people? Well, many of them happen to be Flash or web developers.
The Adobe/RIM announcement: we can expect to see Adobe's Flash Player 10 and Air to be available for BlackBerries. They also announced integration with Adobe's and RIM's development tools. This brings the Flash development community to the BlackBerry. What about web developers?
The BlackBerry Theme Studio: themes -- which change the overall look of your BlackBerry UI and home screen -- have been around for some time. This announcement is notable in that RIM is now officially backing its own theme building tool. This, along with the upcoming support for downloading themes from RIM's own App World store, suggests that RIM is taking looks seriously.
Keeping an eye on the Apple
Games are not exactly business critical, but they do dominate app sales on both RIM's App World and Apple's App Store. But graphically sophisticated games have been difficult to do without a 3D graphics library like OpenGL, which also implies hardware accelerated graphics. This has been a major iPhone strength over a BlackBerry, so the recent announcement of OpenGL ES support -- in OS 5 shows that RIM decided to close this gap. It looks like the BlackBerry will be a pretty respectable gaming platform in its own right.
Web and Flash development may attract brand new developers to the BlackBerry platform, but my own expertise and love is Java. Fortunately, there are some big things coming up for Java development too:
- New version of the Java BlackBerry for Eclipse plugin
- A GUI builder
- Application hot-swapping in the simulator
The Java development cycle can be unnecessarily slow and tedious. The BB simulator is a wonderful tool, but it starts up slow. This can be especially bad if you are working on the UI: you can't see the result until you build the app and launch it in the simulator, and the tweak/build/test cycle is really slow. The announced GUI builder might be a big help in that you can build the UI visually and sort of see what you will get without going through that whole cycle. But it is the appplication hot-swapping feature that I am most excited about. Starting the simulator is the slowest part of my write/build/test cycle. If I can rebuild and reload the app without rebooting the simulator, this will drastically speed up my development process. Alas, I will have to be patient. Though the new Eclipse plugin comes with the OS 5 simulator, neither the GUI builder nor application hot-swapping seem to be available.
Whew, that is quite a lot of activity in the BlackBerry development space. I for one feel encouraged that RIM is serious about remaining competitive and responding on several fronts at once. There is plenty of potential yet for this platform.