Blackberry PlayBook Development: First Impressions

I should open with a summary. My first impressions of developing for the PlayBook have been very good overall. In the past I believe RIM haven’t made things that easy for many developers to get started on their platforms. My account was originally registered in 2009 when I used to own a BB, but I quickly gave up when faced with requirements to get notarised ID, etc. etc. Some of these problems apparently existed earlier in the PlayBook’s life as well but RIM has taken note and clearly been working to make things better, but there are still some opportunities for improvement. I’ll tackle my first impressions with getting set up to develop for the PlayBook by theme: registration, tooling up, development, support and publication. With all of these I’ll try not to dwell on timelines too much – there has been a massive influx of developers and apps thanks to the PlayBook giveaway and it sounds like RIM have been swamped dealing with this.

Registration
Initial sign up as a vendor for the BlackBerry App World is a fairly simple web based affair with few pitfalls. As an independent developer you will be asked whether or not you will be charging for apps. I believe this can be changed later. If you do opt to put apps up for sale then you will not have your vendor account activated immediately. You will be sent an e-mail requesting proof of ID and this is then reviewed by the App World team. In my case this was turned aroundin a couple of working days and they were happy to accept scans of my UK driving license as proof of ID and address. This is a big improvement over my experiences of a few years ago where more expensive options involving notaries were involved. There’s also no charge to register as a vendor these days, which is certainly competitive given the Play Store $25 up front and Apple’s annual $99 fee.

There’s not a lot of room for improvement here. Two small things spring to mind:
1. The generic ID requests aren’t very helpful. There needs to be more details of what is acceptable, especially for international vendors.
2. I now have seperate accounts for the vendor portal, the forums and the BB Jam Zone. Wouldn’t it make more sense to do this as single sign on, possibly linked to the BlackBerry ID.

Tooling Up
There’s quite a range of platforms available for development on the PlayBook: C++, HTML5, AIR, Android. The choice for each developer is likely to come down to where they may have existing components to re-use and any cross-platform considerations. Personally I went for the C++ native SDK route and my choice was driven by wanting to use a particular framework (cocos2d-x).
All of the tools you need are freely available on the BlackBerry Developer site and you don’t need to register to download these so you can have a play with them before you commit to the world of RIM. Along with the development environments / eclipse plugins offered, there is also a PlayBook simulator. This runs on VMWare Player in Windows or VMWare Fusion on a Mac. For native SDK development, the QNX IDE (built on Eclipse) is a nice clean tool and integrates well with the simulator running in the VM.
Getting my hands on the tools was one experience where there is definite room for improvement. I’ve got the following gripes I’d like to see disappear over time:
1. You want me to download how much?!? These things are absolutely massive. Additionally I can’t see any updating path that doesn’t require a full re-install (certainly updating both the ndk and simulator from the beta required a full update). This is quite a fail IMHO – take a lesson from Android’s SDK manager, not Apple’s delivery of an installer through the App Store.
2. Do not try to force a downloader plugin on me. I like my browser how it is thanks. I have to reject the install before I’m even offered a direct link. In all honesty, I wouldn’t have minded so much except when I first tried the downloader plugin it downloaded everything and then kept delivering broken installs. Avoid like the plague.
3. VMWare Player is fine. It’s free and only requires an irritating registration with VMWare. VMWare Fusion, however, is a retail product – I like to develop on my Macbook Air when I’m on the move so this has basically forced me to outlay thirty quid to keep my simulator running. Bravo RIM, bravo.

Development
RIM have provided a few examples to get you kicked off on the dev side. These are helpful, but what is even better is that RIM really seem to have embraced bringing Open Source components into their platform. There’s a whole page dedicated to open source components that have been tested with the PlayBook. This is especially handy for game development – no need to ween yourself off Box2D!
Documentation is present, but I found it rather hard to navigate. In my opinion it could do with a bit of work on the layout of the docs. There are a few too many pages that don’t provide enough cross linking to help you dig into further detail, instead just leaving you in loops where pages link back to each other. I have more than enough of that using HMRC’s website.
All in all I can’t complain about developing for the PlayBook. I didn’t run into any real problems beyond the standard PITA of setting up environment variables on OS X. Only one improvement suggestion here:
1. Give me a local copy of the docs please! KTHXBYE.

Support
Support for developers by RIM has blown me away. Even ignoring the idea of pushing devices out to people as a reward for publishing an app, I’ve seen a great level of support in the few weeks during which I was getting Flip! migrated.
The Developer Support Forums have some genuinely useful people on as well as BlackBerry personnel chipping in with helpful answers. There’s also a good BB dev presence on Twitter and their Blog. I’ve been impressed with the level of engagement from people like Alec Saunders and Alex Kinsella as well.
The only issue I have is that their forums are a little clunky and aren’t always easy to search or navigate. I’d really like to see a community wiki growing at some point as this would help flesh out any gaps in the documentation.

Publication
Publishing to the App World is done through the vendor portal. The portal allows you to maintain your application descriptions, prices, screenshots and releases. It also provides facilities to set up test “sandbox” account to test purchases without having to make an actual payment.
All releases to go onto the App World go through a review and testing process. Much like Apple’s offering, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of transparency around exactly what goes on in this process. From anecdotal evidence on the BB Dev forums, this lack of transparency extends to rejection feedback, which may irritate many developers. I haven’t experienced this personally so I won’t say any more. The review SLA is 7-10 days, and by all accounts they are able to hit this (outside of free PlayBook madness periods). On releasing an update with minor changes, the review turnaround seemed even quicker so I can only guess that the update reviews are a lighter version of the initial approval.
Once in the App World, I could easily search for the name of my app and find it (you hear that Google?). Unfortunately there’re a couple of issues with the App World. For one, the screenshots seem to be getting massively downscaled at the moment so appear very pixellated. The second problem for me was that the RIM view of links to the App World seem to be all about going to single apps rather than vendors. The web portal for the App World does offer a way to view all apps by a vendor, but the PlayBook itself (and so the calls you can make in the native SDK) does not. This seems really odd to me as it seems a no brainer to allow publishers to present links saying “hey, did you like this? Have a look at our other stuff then!”
The one other problem I have with the App World over the Play Store is that I have to use my real name as an individual. I don’t exactly go to great lengths to hide my identity on the internet, but in this case I like to put everything under “floor4”, something I’m not able to do here without registering a name to trade under. I understand, however, that this is a very personal gripe so I can’t really hold this against RIM.

So my overall experience with developing for the PlayBook has been good. There are certainly improvements to the process that could be made, but I’ve never seen a process that couldn’t do with tweaking and RIM certainly seem to be trying to introduce more and more improvements. At the end of the day, it’s another market and well worth your time to investigate. With BB OS10 around the corner you never know, RIM may just get back in the game and make us think of the top three of the mobile world rather than just the two (oh … and WP7 I suppose …).

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