May 3, 2010
New smartphones always grab the sexy headlines, but last week's Research In Motion conference also brought plenty of middleware news for
developers that need to get down to business.
RIM highlighted what it calls super apps -- those that are tightly integrated with the BlackBerry operating system
and with native development tools
instead of being completely
independent in their design and operation. It's essentially a compromise between the rigidly controlled but easy-to-use world of the Apple iPhone
OS and the wide open but chaotic culture derived from PCs -- not a new idea in smartphones, but a fresh implementation.
RIM's definition specifies super app attributes such as automatic startup, background notification, contextual menues, custom alerts, social
connections, and tight integration with the phone's native apps.
Database and applications giant Oracle is leading the charge to help enterprises get started. Oracle last fall began discussing a mobile client for
its Fusion Application Development Framework, and a preview version for the BlackBerry platform is now available. It's a native Java application
that is expected to ship by Oracle's OpenWorld conference later this year, and it's also planned for mobile versions of Microsoft Windows. (Oracle
is also considering a C version for the iPhone OS, Oracle's Ted Farrell, Chief Architect and senior vice president of tools and middleware
previously said. That decision may be influenced by Oracle's acquisition of Java maker Sun Microsystems and by Sun's relationship with Apple,
Farrell noted last fall.)
Farrell's example of an ADF-built super app is for hospital critical care units. Doctors and nurses would carry BlackBerry devices and recieve alerts
about patients, to which they can reply and share updates that are automatically routed to the correct people. Recipients can send confirmations
which travel through RIM's own network, so patients' needs can be addressed even if a hospital's network stops working.
The super apps push may be even more vital than RIM states. "BlackBerry has been developed and optizmized for email, and we're in a world now
that's moved beyond," says Steve Hilton, of Analysys Mason. Just like Palm before it, RIM can't afford to not keep up with enterprise software
"If they don't so something, all that business is going to go to Apple and it's going to go to Google Android. I think it's a safe bet. I think the only
drawback is, can they really attract developers to do this?"
It's certainly possible, some customers say. Bradley Wing, senior manager of mobile at Canada's Yellow Pages Group, said he works with
software from Motek Mobile and he's looking forward to the super app possibilities for customer-facing and internal requirements alike.
"I think it's extremely useful because part of our real value is to be able to supply solutions that are very much user-based," he says. "I can only do
that well for advertisers if I have the best user experience possible. We're quite excited for OS 6."
Wing's company also has 1,200 represenatives across Canada. Those behind the BlackBerry Enterprise Server have applications integrated with
a backend Siebel system. However, RIM still needs to explain how the OS 6 search experience will work, Wing says.
With super apps, RIM may also recapture former customers that previously found life too complicated and expensive. Team Transport is cited as
an enterprise customer on RIM's site, but the company stopped using BlackBerry devices because the cost and involvement of upgrades was too
much, vice president Jennifer Michna says.
"We have used them in the past and actually gven them to each of our drivers, with a third-party application, so they could respond and receiver
messages from a dispatch service," Michna notes. Team Transport has been examining other devices, but the super apps concept may make
them take another look at RIM, she says.
Meanwhile, developers with a more adventurous streak may check out the BlackBerry Partners Fund, which is currently running its third Developer
Challenge. The fund has $150 million from RIM, Royal Bank of Canada, and Thomson Reuters, explains co-managing partner Kevin Talbot. Its
focus is on individual and independent applications -- "If Oracle brings out a healthcare app on the BlackBerry, that's fantastic, but it's not anything
we can invest in through the fund," Talbot explains. The challenge this year also focuses on global contributors and on apps that businesspeople
would use every day -- unlike typical iPhone app utilitization that plummets after 30 days, he claims. Top prizes include up to four regional winners
of $85,000 in hardware and marketing support.