When I got my hands this week on one of Research in Motion's new prototype phones – courtesy of a skittish source who wished to remain anonymous – my expectations were low. Not because I expect RIM's new line of phones to be a disappointment, but because what I was holding in my hands wasn't really a new phone, it was the start of a months-long sales pitch.
Earlier this month, at its annual conference in Orlando, RIM gave some of its developers an early preview of what its new generation of phones will look and feel like. The company handed out prototype BlackBerry 10 handsets (the real things aren't expected until late this year). The idea was to give the people who build BlackBerry apps a sense of what kind of phones are on the way. RIM's single most important challenge, as it prepares to launch the new line of devices that will make or break the company, is to get as many app developers onside as possible.
Far from finished products, what RIM gave out in Orlando were Alpha phones, meaning they will undergo serious modification and improvement before the general public ever gets its hands on them.
Before we go on, here's a quick primer on how the tech industry treats its rough drafts: Traditionally, companies build software in stages. One of the earlier stages is Alpha, when a product is nearly done, but still full of bugs. Beta software is usually stable enough to unleash on the public, but with a warning that things might still go unexpectedly wrong.
(In the past decade or so, companies such as Google began throwing the designation Beta onto software for painfully long periods of time, even as thousands of users were signed on to the services. Essentially, Beta stopped meaning "somewhat incomplete software" and started meaning "a finished product we still want to hedge our bets on.")
The BlackBerry 10 devices are true Alpha products. These are prototype phones, designed solely for the purpose of giving RIM's app developer partners some idea of what's coming down the pipeline. RIM wants people developing apps for its new suite of phones as early as possible, if only to avoid a repeat of the PlayBook debacle of last year, when the company released a powerful tablet with a miserable selection of third-party apps.
As such, the developer Alpha phone must be forgiven its myriad deficiencies. Sure, the virtual keyboard has a habit of missing keystrokes, and the phone comes pre-loaded with almost nothing but a Web browser, but none of this matters – this is not the version of the phone RIM plans to sell consumers. Developers don't care about playing Angry Birds on this thing, they just want to know what they're being asked to build apps for.
As far as hardware goes, the BB10 developer prototype looks an awful lot like a black iPhone 4S without a home button. The only physical buttons are the silver volume controls on one side and the power button on the top edge. Along the other side of the phone, opposite the volume controls, there's an HDMI port, a USB port and a 'micro' SIM card tray. The speaker runs along the bottom edge of the phone. The phone comes with front and rear cameras. There's no physical keyboard, just a plain slab of glass.
It's very likely this particular phone will not be the only flavour of BlackBerry that hits markets when RIM does launch its BB10 devices. Even the slightest hint that the company is abandoning its world-class physical keyboards would draw howls of protest from hardcore BlackBerry users, so expect a variety of offerings.
For the developer prototype phone, RIM has essentially slapped on a clone of the operating system that currently runs on the PlayBook tablet. It's clear there was no effort on the company's part to make even the slightest cosmetic adjustments to the software before putting it on the phone.
But this is arguably a good thing, given RIM's motivation for handing out these phones in the first place – it lets developers know that building apps for the new BB10 devices is going to be very, very similar to building apps for the PlayBook. That's going to make some developers happy, because a long-standing complaint about building apps for BlackBerrys is the sheer number of different models and screen sizes out there. At a time when some developers are already abandoning the company's phones, it's in RIM's best interest to let developers know early on that they won't have to learn some esoteric new programming language or unfamiliar operating system to design BB10 apps.
That said, it's also a pretty good bet that RIM – even if it is putting a modified version of the PlayBook operating system on its new phones – will try very hard to make the user interface on the new devices look much more impressive before the phones actually hit stores. For months, company executives promised that BB10 phones will essentially leapfrog the competition, ushering a new generation of mobile devices. If after all those lofty promises, users find themselves holding something that looks and feels like a miniature PlayBook, they may not be very pleased.
The good news for RIM is this: it seems like those developers who are sticking with BlackBerry are building some impressive-looking apps for BB10. The company recently showed off a weather forecast app from Toronto-based Xtreme Labs. It was undeniably pretty, with smooth background animations and a clean user interface. Most importantly, its designers seemed to have had little trouble building the app, reinforcing RIM's key message to developers: Making apps for BB10 is painless.
Inside every BB10 phone case that RIM handed out to developers is a small sheet that functions as a quick guide to the phone, but also contains a pitch letter. Signed by two RIM vice-presidents, the note is somewhat generic – "At BlackBerry we believe that the future of the Internet is mobile and the future of mobile is the future of the Internet."
But it does speak, indirectly, to just how much RIM views BB10 phones as a kind of reset, a fresh start:
"In short, we're looking for developers who share our vision – developers who believe that mobile applications were just 'round one' in shaping how customers use the Internet," the letter states.
Ironically, the biggest gamble at the heart of RIM's new BB10 phones has little to do with the phones themselves. Instead, RIM is betting on what it hopes will be an industry-wide trend: HTML5.
For as long as Apple's iOS devices – chiefly, the iPhone and the iPad – have dominated the market, developers have had no choice but to build apps for Apple's products on Apple's terms. Even if those terms included strict clauses on content and revenue-splitting (carriers, to a certain extent, were caught in a similar situation of having Apple dictate the terms of the relationship).
But thanks to the rise of competing smartphones powered by Google's Android operating system, there's a little more diversity in the mobile ecosystem, and Apple's ability to unilaterally dictate the rules of the game is slowly eroding.
HTML5, a new programming language for designing Web-based software, could be the single most important catalyst in the erosion of Apple's dominance. Right now, developers normally build different versions of their apps for iOS and Android (and to a lesser extent, Windows Phone and BlackBerry operating systems). Each app plays by different rules. But HTML5 is largely platform-agnostic, meaning a single HTML5 app can run on just about any smartphone or tablet using that device's Web browser.
This has two significant implications for the software industry. The first is that Apple will have much less say in how those apps are allowed to behave, because the apps will no longer live inside an Apple-controlled walled garden. Second, devices will no longer be measured by how many apps they have, since HTML5 apps essentially exist on every device. That second implication – even though it probably won't happen for years, given Apple's and Google's lead in the app race – would allow RIM to stop competing on app quantity, where it lags far behind. Instead, the company could go back to pushing the qualities of its hardware, such as battery life, keyboards and security – areas where it still leads the market. If it levels the playing field on software, RIM can go back to competing on hardware.
That's why you'll hear a lot about HTML5 in the lead-up to the BB10 phone launch. RIM needs developers to embrace this technology, and quickly.
The BB10 developer phone isn't all that interesting as a standalone device – the finished product that eventually hits store shelves may look nothing like the Alpha unit. But it does mark the unofficial start of round two in RIM's increasingly bloody fight to regain relevance in the smartphone market. And if RIM loses this one, there probably won't be a round three.