The Good and Bad of the Blackberry

More ‘smart’ devices are coming out every week now, but I wonder, have their designers actually sat back to ask themselves what makes the Blackberry as good as it is, and why people who have them are so vehemently against giving them up? On the flip side, while the Blackberry seems to have so much going for it, are there things that are holding it back?

Here’s my perspective:

What’s good

Store and Forward
The device and service takes into account that despite the mobile operators’ best efforts, wireless coverage is not ubiquitous and thus the device and network must be smart about when data is sent and received to maintain a reliable user experience. This is why Blackberry users can consistently and accurately carry on instant messaging conversations even while they move in and out of wireless coverage, never dropping a single message.

Less Data Usage
The device and service takes into account that the wireless channel is not infinite, and passes data back and forth intelligently. For example – rather than sending an entire Powerpoint presentation all at once it sends a single slide, and further it is transcoded to reduce the amount of data consumed.

Device Usability
The device has been designed to create an experience that allows users to accomplish a remarkable amount on a very small device. Everything from the keyboard, scroll wheel (or newer “pearl”), software design, and the footprint of the device contributes to a very positive experience that is unrivaled in the other devices I have seen on the market thus far.

Java
The Blackbery development platform has its roots with Java, so arguably it brings along with it an immense community of developers who have the requisite skills needed to build new applications for the Blackberry platform.

What’s bad

Development Community
For whatever reason the size of the development community, RIM sponsored or otherwise, is very small at the moment. Legal mumbo-jumbo like this:

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as the first page to show up when you enter the “Community” section of the Blackberry developers website is not a great start (are we entering the “community of lawyers”?), and simply providing access to a forum is hardly the way to build a thriving open community. Where are all the RIM bloggers? Podcasters? Joint community and RIM application development projects? Community online application hosting?

Development Platform
I should preface this with the fact that I have never developed an application for the Blackberry so I cannot speak to detailed limitations of the API, but from a high level some issues I currently see are the following:

  • RIM requires you to have applications signed if you use certain API’s. This, by itself, is a limitation on the fluidity of open application development, and the additional burden of a $100 administration fee puts up additional roadblocks.
  • Many of the clever parts of the Blackberry platform, including many of the tools needed to easily integrate with web services, all require MDS which in turn requires a Blackberry Enterprise Server.
  • RIM development tools all require Microsoft Windows. No doubt the community of developers that might want to build applications could just as easily be using Linux or OSX. This introduces yet another barrier.

The consumer market for Blackberry devices is growing, and just as we have seen massive amounts of development on web based platforms such as Google and Facebook, the possibility is also there that this same group of people will jump onto the opportunity to build new mobile applications. But given the few issues outlined above, I would argue that the barrier is too great for the same level of enthusiasm for development to be applied to the existing Blackberry development platform.

Yet it is the members of this existing development community who are likely to be the ones who will want to build a Blackberry mobile Twitter application, for example. Given the limitations above, how will they be able to accomplish such a thing without some open public infrastructure in place for them to leverage? And will they be willing to send a cheque out for $100.00 just to start a small project for their own interest to ensure they have access to all the necessary API’s? I know the solution to the infrastructure problem currently provided by RIM is simulators, and no doubt RIM’s answer for the $100 signing fee is that the average developer won’t need those specific API’s anyway. Unfortunately I believe that in reality if a developer can’t test and use their application for real (and be sure all the API’s they might need are available to them) then chances are they won’t bother – after all, isn’t one of the main reasons for development often to ‘scratch your own itch’?

“Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch” – Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

There are more great web services popping up every day, and many Blackberry users are wanting to use their device for more then just email now. If RIM doesn’t start creating a platform by which developers can leverage these services to build new applications for their mobile device then no doubt someone else will. RIM has a great head start with their excellent devices and reliable service infrastructure, but some critical pieces of the puzzle remain missing and without them the availability of new applications will suffer despite the potential offered by the platform. Of course, the carriers themselves have a part to play in creating an environment that encourages application development – actions like this from AT&T forcing RIM to limit the capabilities of their devices sold on the AT&T network doesn’t help anything and proves the carriers desire to control what development happens as much as possible.

RIM has grown into being the flagship mobile business device, though to some extent I think they need to start to try and shed the stodgy business persona, let loose, have some more fun, open up, and encourage experimentation. With the right support and infrastructure in place, the same drive and curiosity that has led to things like Panoramio, Walkscore, etc will ultimately drive similar novel applications on a platform that can reach you wherever you are.