Research In Motion Ltd on Tuesday offered initial software tools to developers looking to create applications for its new BlackBerry 10 platform, moving a step closer to perhaps the most crucial launch in its history later this year.
Aiming to reverse huge market-share losses to Apple Inc and Google Inc's Android, RIM is essentially starting from scratch with its next-generation BlackBerry 10 devices. The new platform will be compatible with few of the apps available for its existing smartphones, and legacy BlackBerry smartphones won't be able to run apps being created for the new platform.
RIM already is far behind Apple and Android in getting independent developers and content producers to build apps, making the BlackBerry much less attractive to consumers. RIM is looking to change that.
"Developers building for BlackBerry 10 will be able to easily create the kind of cutting-edge apps that deliver truly engaging experiences," said Alec Saunders, RIM's head of developer relations.
To kick-start the effort, RIM this week is handing out a prototype device, known as the Alpha Dev, to developers at its BlackBerry World conference in Orlando. The handset will enable them to test how their creations perform on the new platform.
Unlike most other BlackBerry models, Alpha Dev has no physical keyboard. It looks like a smaller version of RIM's PlayBook tablet, complete with a touch-sensitive frame that a user swipes to call up a menu.
While RIM says the hardware it eventually launches will look much different than the prototype, apps built for the Alpha Dev's 4.2 inch screen will allow for a "very seamless transition" to BlackBerry 10 devices, said Christopher Smith, vice-president for application platform and tools.
The toolkits RIM is offering cover work in native code, the Cascades user interface framework and web-based HTML5.
Cascades helps in the creation of graphically rich work, while native code gives developers access to core device features such as the camera. Work created with HTML5 - commonly used by developers of web content - is typically transferable to other mobile devices.
Cascades was developed by The Astonishing Tribe, a Swedish user interface company RIM bought in 2010. It offers guidelines and a "cookbook" where developers can select an effect with a touch and have it written directly into their software.
For example, a developer can select the speed at which an icon drops down the screen and whether it bounces to a stop without worrying about the algorithms and code behind it.
RIM said it would add more tools in coming months and apps created with any of the BlackBerry 10 tools will run on the company's poor-selling PlayBook once the tablet is upgraded to the new platform. They will not work on RIM's older smartphones.
QUICKER DEVELOPMENT PROCESS
RIM said it had been working with some partners to ensure users have content and apps waiting for them when the devices are launched.
Among those developers are social fitness app maker Endomondo, magazine store PixelMags, local search app Poynt , and augmented reality company Wikitude.
Gameloft said it was working to bring 11 games to the new platform, including a puzzle game called "Shark Dash" and a more immersive title, "N.O.V.A 3: Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance."
"RIM has got it right with the BlackBerry 10 platform," said Adam Linford from Truphone, which offers local calling and data rates while its customers are roaming. "The platform's support for open-source components flattens the learning curve, enabling us to build a new application quickly and cost effectively."
Impressing developers is crucial for RIM, which has expanded beyond its traditional strength in providing mobile email to office workers, only to struggle against the more consumer-friendly iPhone from Apple and the slew of devices that make use of the Android platform.
Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM has around 15,000 apps for its PlayBook tablet and 70,000 apps for its smartphones or the tablet, compared with 200,000 iPad apps, and half a million for the iPhone.
A recent survey from Appcelerator and IDC showed less than 16 percent of developers were "very interested" in creating programs for RIM, compared with 90 percent for Apple and 80 percent for Android.
Earlier on Tuesday, research firm IDC said that RIM's share of the global smartphone market had slipped to 6.7 percent in the first quarter, from 13.6 percent a year earlier. (Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Frank McGurty)