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BlackBerry PlayBook Offers Developers Real Choice

RIM’s inaugural attempt at entering the tablet market with the BlackBerry PlayBook is providing developers with many more options to entering the BlackBerry ecosystem. While previously BlackBerry devices required developers to build apps in Java, the PlayBook is providing a multitude of options for developers to join the BlackBerry community. But how do you make the choice? How do you know which option that you’ve heard of is the right choice for your PlayBook development? Let’s take a brief look at the various options for developing for BlackBerry PlayBook and consider how to decide which option is right for you.

Adobe AIR/Flash

One of the major selling points of the PlayBook platform for developers is its support for Adobe Flash applications. Either via a webpage or as a standalone app, Flash apps on PlayBook should perform very well. Flash is a familiar development platform and environment for many developers so finding resources to build applications in Flash may be less difficult that finding developers familiar with native PlayBook or BlackBerry development options.

Android 2.3

RIM has created a virtual environment for PlayBook that is compatible with Android 2.3 applications. The ‘app player’ for Android 2.3 apps will be available as a download on BlackBerry App World sometime in Summer 2011. It’s not yet known how well the Android 2.3 apps will perform within this virtual environment so it’s too early to tell if it’s will be viable to support PlayBook via writing an Android 2.3 application but if part history with virtual environments is any indication, there will be a performance sacrifice as well as a general user experience sacrifice for app written for Android 2.3 and run on PlayBook in the virtual environment. We anticipate that this will not be a viable option for targeting PlayBook users — only for extending the reach of existing Android 2.3 applications. It is not yet known if Android apps written for any other OS version (e.g. 1.5, 1.6, 2.1, 2.2, etc.) will work in the Android app player on PlayBook but Android 3.0 apps (targeted for Android Tablets) will not be supported in the Android app player for PlayBook.

BlackBerry OS 6

Like with the Android 2.3 support, RIM has created an ‘app player’ for BlackBerry OS 6 apps that will be available for download on BlackBerry App World in Summer 2011. The same caveats sacrificing for performance and user experience that apply to running Android 2.3 apps on PlayBook will likely also apply to running BlackBerry OS 6 apps on PlayBook. The main difference is that the BlackBerry OS 6 user interface is likely more familiar to the average PlayBook user than the Android user interface since it is expected that a large portion of PlayBook users will also be BlackBerry smartphone users. For existing BlackBerry OS 6 apps, this app player may be a viable way to quickly extend the audience for the app to PlayBook users but like the Android app player, it will not be a long term solution as apps developed via other options on PlayBook will greatly exceed the user experience of virtualized BlackBerry OS 6 apps.

NDK

RIM has announced (but not yet publicly released) a Native Software Development Kit (NDK) for PlayBook. This tool set will allow developers to build high-performance, multi-threaded, native C/C++ applications with industry standard GNU tool chains. Developers can create advanced 2D and 3D applications and special effects by leveraging programmable shaders available in hardware-accelerated OpenGL ES 2.0. Basically, if you’re building games that need good performance (i.e. not card games, or small simple games) then the NDK is the option that will benefit you the most. The NDK was previewed at BlackBerry World in May and is scheduled to go into open Beta in Summer 2011.

WebWorks

In order to help web developers build applications that look and feel more like native apps, RIM developed the WebWorks framework. Use the BlackBerry® WebWorks™ SDK for Tablet OS to create applications based on web technologies such as JavaScript®, HTML5 and CSS. This development approach allows you to use the same code to target both BlackBerry smartphones and tablets. This framework provides Javascript hooks into the native API calls. There is a lot of access provided into the Adobe AIR APIs exposed via Javascript for using in a WebWorks application. The performance of WebWorks applications will be slower than Flash or Native applications but it is yet to be seen how well the Android 2.3 or BlackBerry OS 6 apps will perform in their virtualized environments so WebWorks could compare favourably to those options.

Web Browser

As with all Tablets, the Web Browser is a viable option for a lot of applications and businesses. The browser on the PlayBook fully supports HTML5 using the WebKit engine. Virtually every website that exists will work fine on the PlayBook and it’s fairly easy to update your website’s look and feel for a touch screen interface. While running a website on a tablet is basically like running it on a PC/Mac, you do not get to take advantage of the integration with the device that users will expect on mobile apps. For many services, this is fine, but for apps that need tighter control over the user experience and to integrate well with the underlying OS, the Web Browser may not be the best choice.

How do you choose?

That’s a lot of technology options to choose from when considering PlayBook development. The key for understanding what will work best for you is to look at what you want to accomplish with your product or service. Since the technology choices above each have positives and negatives, you need to match the requirements and feature set of your product/service with the right technology. Key questions include:

  • Do you need high-end graphics performance? — the NDK may be the only choice.
  • Will you need to integrate with the native BlackBerry apps (mail, calendar, etc.)? — the Web Browser is probably no the way to go.
  • Are you targeting BlackBerry smartphones as well as PlayBook? — WebWorks might make sense here.
  • Will your product or service need to be available to users of other platforms (iPhone, Android, PC, etc.)? — a custom Web view might suffice.
  • Is your product or service currently built for the web or do you have downloadable applications already? — choose a technology complimentary to your existing infrastructure.
  • Are you looking to experiment with a mobile presence or built the best experience possible for your customers? — NDK and AIR apps provide the best user experience.

Ultimately, the choice of technology is unique to your company and product. Working through all your product requirements with mobile experts allows you to make sure that what you invest in for PlayBook support is the right long term decision to maximize your product’s visibility, create a great user experience and drive revenue through your product or service. There’s no one right answer for every product and knowing the tradeoffs before committing to a technology direction will save you money and ultimately make your product or service as successful as it can possibly be.

 

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