In a world of proprietary and open source software, where does BlackBerry fit?

By Yousif Abdullah on 20 Oct 2010 03:22 pm EDT
BlackBerry Bart

As I was crawling the Web for BlackBerry news, I ended up at our sister site, Android Central. I stumbled on this interesting article called ”What does 'open' mean to us?”, which discusses the state of open source and its relation to the Android platform. Being a loyal Linux hacker, I simply could not let this slip away – someone going by the name eric6052 commented on the article at Android Central saying, and I quote, ”I would like to see a similar article on all the SPE sites”. I shall make the first step for CrackBerry. So, what does 'open' mean to us?

Definition of open

With so much discussion and debate surrounding the word 'open', I personally have lost interest in defining it. Nowadays, I like to say it is something where the Free Software Foundation and Open Source Initiative will never reach consensus. I do know someone, however, who wrote a good definition of 'open'.

Most people involved with Linux will likely know what I mean with Open Sound System. For those who do not, it is a digital audio architecture for UNIX and Unix-like operating systems. At some point of my life, I had closely worked together with the people behind the project. Shortly after making the project source code available to the public, the lead developer, Hannu Savolainen, published an interesting entry in his blog to clarify what 'open' means in “Open Sound System”.

In accordance to Hannu's thoughts, 'open' could be defined as something that is fully documented from the ground up. To be open then means to welcome and encourage everybody to use a common system or framework to engage in collaboration with other people. The control of this infrastructure is therefore not in the hands of a single entity, but in the hands of everyone consuming and contributing to the ecosystem. Some may not be willing to share this definition of open, but I feel it best describes the very meaning of it. You can safely assume this is the definition I refer to when mentioning the word 'open' below.

Locked in, locked out

Despite documentation and the availability of an SDK provided by RIM, BlackBerry itself as a platform has never been truly open. A BlackBerry smartphone has always required a BIS or BES connection to be fully utilized. Without one – even with a WiFi capable handset – the user is left with an incomplete experience only. To sum it up in a single string of what you can not do with a BlackBerry without a BIS or BES connection (or any modifications), you can not use the BlackBerry Browser (with the exception of the Hotspot Browser), any of the social networking or instant messaging applications built by RIM (including Social Feeds), access App World or send or receive e-mail. There are a few others to note, but these are the most prominent worth mentioning.

It usually is a sensitive topic as to whether using a BlackBerry without a data plan is ethical, but it is important to note that BlackBerry smartphones are sold in greater and greater amounts to people who simply do not have the need to access e-mail on the go. The Street mentioned this in myth #2 in its article “Top 3 RIM BlackBerry Myths”  The control over the functionality of a BlackBerry smartphone is not limited to RIM only, though. Enter the term “Service Book”.

Service Books could be defined as collections of information, which instruct the BlackBerry smartphone to behave in certain ways given certain commands. For example, to send or receive e-mail on a BlackBerry, a Service Book record for the e-mail account must be present, which contains the necessary information for the BlackBerry to communicate with BIS or BES in order to reach the mail server.

There are various different Service Book records available to choose from. For example, to utilize BlackBerry Maps, an LbsConfig (location-based service configuration) record must be loaded. Even MMS functionality is controlled by Service Books. Now, with this much power over a BlackBerry smartphone, who gets to decide which Service Books get loaded on a BlackBerry? Service providers of course, also known as carriers.

A typical carrier-pushed Service Book record contains information to enable the BlackBerry Browser to access the Internet via the carrier network, but sometimes – from the standpoint of a customer – misuse of Service Books can occur. A great example is Verizon Wireless' decision to limit the BlackBerry Browser to search the Web with Bing only (from the search bar in the BlackBerry Browser), removing other search provider options such as Google. In compliance with the licensing terms of BIS, a carrier may push applications to a BlackBerry smartphone without prompting the user for action as well.

Definitely, Service Books as well as the requirement to have a BIS or BES connection do not fall into any category of being open. Note that Service Books are different from IT Policies, which are used by BES administrators to limit employees from accessing certain functions of a BlackBerry smartphone for compliance with work regulations. So, is there anything in the broad world of BlackBerry that is open?

Open source development

Developers wishing to develop for the BlackBerry platform may turn to RIM for online resources and an SDK to get into BlackBerry application development. With Java being at the heart of the BlackBerry OS, it has been possible for developers to use common and familiar development environments such as Eclipse or Visual Studio to develop BlackBerry applications. Indeed, RIM also provides an Eclipse plug-in to make developing for the BlackBerry platform a breeze using the Eclipse IDE. As great as this may sound, developers are limited to set up their tools in a Windows environment only. That is, until now.

Following the great announcements made at the BlackBerry Developer Conference 2010, RIM now provides a tech preview of its Eclipse plug-in for Mac. Definitely, this is a great start and a step in the right direction, but Mac developers are still left a bit in the dark. Simulator software – BlackBerry Smartphone Simulator, BlackBerry Email and MDS Services Simulator – is to date compatible with Windows only. In other words, developers working in Mac environments may wish to turn to Boot Camp or virtualization software in order to take full advantage of the development tools provided by RIM.

Fortunately, the BlackBerry platform allows developers to present their creativity in other ways besides development of native Java applications. A little bit over a year ago, RIM announced the BlackBerry Widget SDK, which allows developers to use their existing Web development skills to create BlackBerry applications. Now, this concept has been taken a great step further. With that, I mean BlackBerry WebWorks.

Not only the next evolution in BlackBerry Widget technology, but BlackBerry WebWorks also marks the first occurrence of RIM touching open source waters. For those interested, have a look at the project page for BlackBerry WebWorks at GitHub. Thanks to BlackBerry WebWorks, developers are no longer restricted to certain development environments, allowing those hacking their way with Linux to participate in BlackBerry application development as well.

Although fairly uncommon, open source development has existed within the BlackBerry community for quite a while. A great example is the Funambol project, which brings SyncML and the BlackBerry platform together. Another interesting project is Barry, with roots in Waterloo, Canada. For Linux and BSD users alike, Barry is a very close equivalent to BlackBerry Desktop Software enabling much of the functionality Windows and Mac users have had the joy to use in the past. Last, but not least, is a project with much importance in open source circles: bb-ant-tools. It is an alternative to the RIM Java Development Environment, which also enables native Java application development in a Linux environment. Definitely, something worth looking into if setting up a Windows environment for BlackBerry application development is out of question.

You can judge for yourself, but based on all the above, there is certainly much 'open' going on in the broad world of BlackBerry. The number is quite low however, when compared to the BlackBerry platform at a whole. This does not necessarily indicate an issue, as the proprietary system that is grounds for the RIM infrastructure has proven to be extremely secure. To put it differently, if the BlackBerry platform was completely open, it could hurt the reputation RIM has earned for the security of its platform.

The future with QNX

There is more to RIM than just the BlackBerry OS. Unveiled at the BlackBerry Developer Conference 2010, the BlackBerry PlayBook is where RIM is heading to in the future. I must say, that I am very excited about it. Not necessarily about the tablet itself, but what it is based on – software from QNX.

With worldwide recognition in the industry, QNX Software Systems from Ottawa, Canada has made innovation like no other since 1980. A remarkable microkernel design in its POSIX certified Neutrino RTOS (real-time operating system) has enabled QNX Software Systems to target markets such as automotive telematics, medical instrumentation and military to name a few. Simply said, a robust and modular design that is unmatched by anyone else in the industry. Head over to the QNX Software Systems Web site for more information and the QNX Corporate Fact Sheet. And no, I am not getting paid for saying this. In fact, I have already seen and experienced QNX software in reality, all the way back to QNX RTOS v4. A father teaching at a university taking his curious son with him to work equals interesting encounters, that is all I can say :-)

A bit of understanding of the microkernel architecture lets me believe that we will soon have something truly unexpected coming from RIM. Thinking about it, the current specifications of the BlackBerry PlayBook reveal that it will first arrive in a WiFi only flavor. In other words, this could mean the end of legacy components found in BlackBerry OS, allowing for an uncompromised experience out of the box. When the QNX based OS finally reaches BlackBerry smartphones, we just may have something that is a true game changer. A more open future is ahead of us, I can almost feel it.

Reader comments

In a world of proprietary and open source software, where does BlackBerry fit?


how come no one else so the potential of this company qnx for $240million thats pretty cheap for all the good stuff we have been hearing

There are a lot of factors in a buy out,
Can you see an implementation of the software?
can you see how to make money off of the acquisition?
Can you work with the Staff of the existing company?

I believe the RIM/QNX deal was a mutual growth endeavor, I don't think QNX was seeking a buyer persay

I'm pro apple but not pro-iphone and I'm firmly gonna say until apple REALLY f's up or blackberry sheds their stigma of being business devices and not being good for people that want to play (i.e. get some decent friggin games, look at something like Angry Birds which has been put on most every major smartphone OS but nothing yet for blackberry, and it's a game that I'm yet to meet someone that installs it and isn't nearly instantly addicted to it)

RIM won't be taking out apple any time soon, in fact, apple and google (android) are both hugely poised to lay serious hurt on RIM if they don't start getting things changed.

That being said, I'm a diehard blackberry lover, I won't be changing off of my BB but, RIM's falling behind, and falling behind quickly, I'm hoping that the QNX deal can do some great stuff for the blackberry......

There are a few basic things that make it harder for OSS developers. First is - as you said - the lack of alternative OS support. Second is that the community to date has largely consisted of proprietary developers -- which means it is hard to come across others who are both knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge. Third is the process for code signing (and even more - data signing if you need secure data) -- it does not lend itself at all well to shared development.

Speaking of open source BlackBerry projects, let's not forget to mention *cough* bbssh @ (nearing an excellent 1.2 release!) and logicmail - also approaching a major release milestone.

I think the real issue here is a bit of a disconnect between mobile software and open source. First of all, the whole "Sell some weekend-project app for $0.99-4.99" mentality (whether or not its actually profitable) pretty much excludes the possibility of free/open source from popular consciousness. This is a very important point, since developers of such apps are a prime target for any grass-roots open source development (the kind that bootstraps the Linux desktop, for example).

Secondly its difficult to make money off an open source project when the actual offering is an end-user product. Most successful open-source business models revolve around service and support models, typically targeting enterprise back-end infrastructure customers. Most of the smartphone software ecosystem really doesn't fit within this model, at least at present. (that may change someday, hopefully, but perhaps not on the consumer side)

Wow, this is a great article! I'm very glad to be a BB user!! This is a very exciting time for us now! When QNX OS comes out on BB's I got to have one!!!!

I'm going to be bold and stand up and say it. Blackberry (RIM) is going to go the way of Palm. Once great. Once the leader in it's respective field. Now, a fading memory unable to keep up with the newer, the younger.

Innovate or die.

In the end, a consumer just wants an app that works well and performs well; at a reasonable price of course. Whatever it takes to make that happen is all that is important, whether it be open source development or somewhat restrictive.

But I'm all for supporting developers, and giving them the best damn developing environments and SDKs. So that they can make me the best apps :)

Great article Yousif. Very informative and a great prospective look into the future of blackberry OS

(the more i read about QNX, the more i learn how BAWSE they are!!)

Never commented on how great an article is, but this one deserves the praise. Nicely written. Happy there was no annoying youtube vid to watch too!

A (smart)phone is a (smart)phone, regardless of it runs Linux (android/Web OS), Windows Mobile/CE (microsoft), BB OS (BlackBerry Operating System), or it's company's native operating system, people that AREN'T brainwashed into buying the latest greatest (WASTE OF MONEY) will not complain and will use the device until it doesn't even function anymore. Hackers will find ways to root devices or take complete control over them (making servicebooks, for example, if it was ever done) soon because of their own rate of successes via trial and error, then releasing the programs to the general public for them to be able to bypass carrier restrictions, etc.

Got any replies? Tweet me, @rootbrian_, me, @rootbrian. lol (FYI i'm no hacker or programmer either)

I personally think that over the next couple of years we will see app developers start to die off. A few years ago you would develop an app and sell it. People would buy it and be happy. Now You will spend countless hours creating an app and when you go to sell it people freak out because it's not free. They demand that you take all your free time to create a high quality app and then provide it to them for free.

This sounds good, but it's only pushing developers away. Just like our economy goes down the tubes when people quit spending money, apps will surely do the same thing if we continue down this path.

With that being said Blackberry owners are the most active buyers in my experience. I program for Palm, Blackberry, iPhone and Android and it seems that Blackberry owners will but a paid app if the free version is good, where everyone else will keep the free version and move on to the next free app.

RIM has missed the mark by good 10 years to adopt and embrace open source.

Through growth or acquisition, either way, the notion of open is foreign to RIM.

Yeah, they showcased a non-blackberry (read tablet) device, with a non-blackberry OS (read QNX) - let's get real. What RIM did was just show the world "look, we invested some money outside our core business competence and we made something nice"

You are confused that we'll see QNX on our smartphones ANY TIME SOON. OS 6 is not QNX, and we've been hearing/reading about it for over two years. And it is now available ONLY in new models? Is 9700 too old?

Truth is, RIM is slow as a snail in a time where Android is cruising in super-sonic speeds...

You want to talk about open source, talk about Android - hacker, no-hacker, it is time to wake up and smell the cheese: "Open Source RIM" is an oxymoron. Period.

I hate to say it but I have to agree completely. I thought maybe RIM was trying to rapidly innovate but when I hear we can expect to see QNX on a BB sometime after BB OS 7 I really have no confidence in them. I hope their fans remain die hard for a LONG time because thats what its going to take to stay alive when everybody is doing what QNX is doing and doing it now while you are talking about a transition that is 2-4 years down the road. I mean, we just got BB OS 6.

RIM, you needed QNX or something like it on your handsets LAST YEAR. Microsoft missed the boat with their handsets by about 6 to 12 months and then came out with an OS that sucks as near as I can tell (thinking KIN and its re-hash, WP7). Thankfully QNX doesn't suck, quite the opposite, but you don't have 2 years. For the love of god don't pull a microsoft because the OS you have doesn't mean jack if its not actually running on any device you sell. PUll your heads out and hire a ton more developers to push this thing out ASAP. Again, you don't have 2 years. People are grumbling about this NOW, even BB users that love you and buy your products. I am one.

Fantastically written! You clarified much in this posting! I have to say that I feel I have a much clearer understanding of things in the developement world now! I admit, I moved away from programming in the C++ days! This almost inspired me to get into Linux and get involved! Thanks for the inspiration!

Sounds like a movie trailer by Don LaFontaine:
In a world of proprietary and open source software.....
One Company stands alone. Research In Motion, Never resting always developing for mankind.

you get the point. lol