Many of you may have already caught wind that yesterday on Twitter Alec Saunder, RIM's VP of Developer Relations, advised that future updates to the BlackBerry PlayBook would remove the ability to sideload applications. Immediately this caused an uproar; people jumped on the defensive and thought this was an awful idea.
Before we get our knickers in a bunch, and deem this to be "yet another failure by RIM", let's look at the whole picture and some of the reasons behind why they may be doing this. Then, let's look at how it actually is better, in quite a few ways, for the developers. Sure, it's not the most ideal situation, but let's hit the break together and explore a few of the reasons that RIM may be making this decision.
One of the large obstacles that Android developers face today is that their applications are often pirated, and installing Android applications on a device is extremely easy. Once someone has the APK file for the application, which doesn't take much to get, they can easily install or distribute. Since the release of BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0, and the ability to convert these APK files to a BAR file (the application installer for the BlackBerry PlayBook), that means even more potential for users to do this. Within a matter of just a few minutes someone can take a developer's paid application, convert it to a file that can be sideloaded on the PlayBook, upload it to any random hosting site and make it available for just about anyone to download.
Put yourself in the developer's shoes in this situation. RIM is all about the developers right now; they have folks behind the scenes working with more large name companies than you would even believe right now. The last thing they want is for someone's paid application to become a free application on their platform and the reason behind that is obvious. Every time this happens, we most likely have one less developer who will EVER be interested in developing for the BlackBerry platform or converting their existing application. Sure, you could argue that the increase in installs would show them that we are interested in their application, but I doubt the developer would see it like this. Apparently, through discussions with developers in trying to get their application ported to the PlayBook, RIM has found out from several developers that they are not interested in doing so until the ability to sideload has been removed.
Enhancing the user experience
You would assume that having more applications available is what enhances the experience, right? Well, to some yes - but to most no. Have you ever installed an application and it didn't work? What is your first thought when that happens? It is either blamed on the device or the application. When we create a BAR file and make it available, we are expecting the app to work on a platform that developers never intended it to work on, and we the user may still blame the developer of the app if or when it doesn't work. While many understand that converting applications will be a hit or miss thing, think about all the users who aren't active in the forums, that don't read the blogs all day long. They will stumble upon a post that shows them how to sideload on the PlayBook, see a few apps that we have recommended, and then they will start branching off into others.
The second these users hit an application that force closes, or gives any other issues or error messages, odds are that they will become annoyed at the developer. Unfortunately, this is not the developer's fault, they likely never intended for it to be on the PlayBook, and yet they are blamed. RIM wants to make sure that the experience on their platform is top notch, they don't want a user's first experience to be with an application that is not properly converted, and incorrectly loaded.
So, now that we can kind of see why RIM has made this decision, and how it can help in some ways, let's also take a look at how this can have some big negative impacts.
Beta Testing of Applications
Since OTA downloads (outside of BlackBerry App World) are not currently supported on the BlackBerry PlayBook, the only way for a developer to get their application onto the device of their testers is by having it sideloaded. Removing the ability to sideload will have a huge impact on this, as developers will not be able to distribute their applications to their test groups, causing room for lots of issues. Developers often seek out a group of people to help them find issues, test features and more, and this helps them release a market worthy application.
Currently developers have a sandbox in BlackBerry App World in which they can add BlackBerry ID's to and basically give away their application. This allows the user to install the market version of the application at no cost to them. A system like this would be great, and what we would need but without having to force the developers to put their beta application into App World for general download as well.
Behind the scenes RIM could always be working on some type of system which would allow developers to register devices and allow for local installs similar to Test Flight on iOS, but as of now we have no knowledge of such a thing. Sure, developers could put their applications into App World under the test center to get feedback, but that is harder to control. Alec tweeted that he thinks there is a solution for developers in the works, so here's to hoping it is ready when they remove the ability to sideload, and not after the fact.