Why Blackberry's Embrace of HTML5 Is Good Karma

By betting on open-software, RIM helps close digital divide. (Which is why Tyee's free phone app is HTML5, too.)

By Geoff D'Auria 21 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff D'Auria is web manager and front-page editor at The Tyee.

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This app should work on next generation Blackberry phones.

History tends to go like this.

When a company gets shut out of a sector of a market, it suddenly becomes a champion of open access.

When a company owns a sector, it focuses on keeping everyone else shut out.

And so it is now with RIM, the makers of Blackberry phones.

RIM's been losing the smart phone wars of late. The reasons are varied but one stands out -- a serious lack of third-party apps.

To combat this, RIM emphasized May 1 that its software development kit for the not-yet-released Blackberry 10 supports HTML5 apps or "web apps."

"The toolkit we are delivering today also meets developers on their own terms. Whether using the powerful Cascades framework, writing direct native code or developing in HTML5, BlackBerry 10 will empower developers to create attractive and compelling apps that excite customers," said vice president Christopher Smith in this news release.

No matter why they're doing so, this is a win for you, us, and anyone who understands the importance of open access in technology and democracy.

All apps not created equal

Apps, for those who don't have smart phones, are small software programs (or "applications") that you download to your phone to perform simple functions. Publishers like The Tyee have apps that makes our content more readable on a phone's small screen. (If you're on a smart phone right now, download it simply by clicking on this link.)

Most apps these days are what's called "native." A native app is one built specifically to run on a particular phone's operating system and integrates with the device's low-level firmware. Native apps are therefore robust but typically not cross-platform. In other words, you can't take a native iPhone app and run it on a Blackberry without adapting it to work in that Blackberry environment.

From a production point of view, that means multiple software development teams working on multiple code bases, with little overlap. Add to that the cost and logistical difficulty of coordinated upgrades and you have a prohibitively expensive exercise.

Here at The Tyee we call it the new digital divide.

Before the web, publishers (and voices) were shut out of the world of media because it was too expensive to run massive presses and hire a fleet of trucks to, for example, deliver a paper. In the last two decades we've seen a flowering of independent voices, like The Tyee and Rabble.ca and many others. This could only happen because of the low-cost, open access and, therefore democratic, nature of the Internet.

But if it's true, as Blackberry itself claims, that "...the future of the Internet is mobile and the future of mobile is the future of the Internet," and if native apps were the only option, then it's also true that we could have been entering an Internet dark age.

Folks at places like Apple like are just fine with that. They are app gatekeepers (all for-profit iOS apps must be distributed through the Apple app store, where Apple takes a healthy bite out of the profit). It's the right of the lord in a walled garden, some might say.

And it's not bad business if you can get it.

But RIM couldn't get it.

And so now they are supporting something called HTML5, which, frankly, we love because it takes apps out of these walled gardens.

Our HTML goes to five

As it sounds, HTML5 is the next generation of HTML (hyper-text markup language), the simple and open infrastructure the web is built on. It can get massively complicated but it's also simple enough to be written with the text editor on whatever computer you happen to be using right this minute. The standards are made available by the W3C consortium, along with some great free online lessons.

HTML5, as opposed to previous versions of HTML, adds some commonly used javascript functions to the language, which means interactivity and multimedia content becomes easier to include on a web page, which means it’s easier to build an web pages that act like apps. These HTML5 apps are called "web" apps and, like a web page, they are largely platform agnostic, assuming the platform handles javascript well. The Tyee app is an HTML5 web app.

So, the nice thing about HTML5 and web apps is that, like the Internet and the open web before, it closes the digital divide. Small organizations and publications like The Tyee can build an app out of HTML5 and that app can work on all major smart phones (or will once the BB10 is released).

Will this strategy work for RIM? Will it get them the apps and, consequently, the market share they need to stave off a Nortel fate?

No idea.

They also announced a $10,000 incentive to get developers working on Blackberry apps in advance of the phone's release. If an app is approved for sale in their "app world," and it makes more than $1,000 but less than $10,000, RIM will cut a cheque for the difference.

So, it's clear that apps, both web and native, are a key to their strategy.

But if you think about it, pushing HTML5 is pretty smart. The more developers use HTML5, the more apps Blackberry phones have access to, even if those apps were meant for Apple devices or Android devices. For example, right out of the gate, you'll be able to install The Tyee app on the BB10 phone and it should work.

Speaking of which, we'd be happy to have RIM ship all their new Blackberry 10 phones pre-loaded with The Tyee app. Maybe then our app won't be labelled "anti-Canadian."

In fact, all you early adopters out there,send me a note and let me know how our app works! We don’t have the budget to buy phones to test (see above: digital divide).  [Tyee]

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