Ottawa developers playing by the ’Book

Krystle
Krystle Chow
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RIM tablet’s Android, Flash capabilities creating opportunities for high-tech players

On the eve of the launch of Research In Motion’s PlayBook device, the buzz is palpable among local developers about the potential in the tablet computing space.

Select Start Studios co-founder and CPO Adam McNamara. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

“There’s been some genuine interest … enterprise customers are asking about it and want more information,” says Adam McNamara, co-founder of Select Start Studios. “(The PlayBook) is attractive for business since it’s nice and small and RIM has a history of enterprise deployment. And our company is more business-oriented, so it’s interesting.”

His firm, which develops mobile products for markets such as the health-care and finance sectors, currently only gets about 10 per cent of its business for technology related to RIM’s BlackBerry smartphone platform, and he notes he isn’t sure how the PlayBook will affect Select Start’s bottom line.

But the addition of capabilities for the popular open-source Android system on the PlayBook is something that intrigues Mr. McNamara.

“Android has the biggest growth in market share in the U.S.; businesses are finally accepting it as a healthy alternative to the Apple platform and are asking for it by name,” he says, adding that means more options for Select Start.

The company is also watching the development of the PlayBook’s native software development kit closely, since it represents a brand-new opportunity to exercise Select Start’s expertise in building user-friendly mobile experiences.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum from Select Start, are the various RIM-centric companies in which Kyle McInnes is involved. Mr. McInnes is co-founder of WickidApps – which currently has a single camera app that’s only available for the RIM smartphone – and Pretzil, a mobile application “check-in” and loyalty program that is 50-per-cent focused on BlackBerry apps. He’s also editor-in-chief of the BlackBerryCool blog, which previously reported solely on the RIM product but is now branching out to other platforms.

Mr. McInnes says RIM’s move to open up app development beyond its exclusively Java-based environment, first with PlayBook and later with the BlackBerry smartphones, is both exciting and a potential concern.

“It’s allowed us to look at different ways of building applications, some of which are more affordable than others. For example, depending on the project, it’s often much cheaper to hire an HTML5 developer because there are more of them trained than in Java,” he says.

However, the more capabilities that are added for popular platforms such as Flash and Adobe Air, the more likely it will be that the traditionally small market will be flooded with new – and free – apps.

“If you now have a tablet with full Flash support, what does that do for the gaming market on BlackBerry App World? There are a hundred thousand or few million completely free Flash-based games, not to mention the fact that people can now go on Facebook and play Flash games like FarmVille. The gaming industry is now competing with the entire web,” says Mr. McInnes.

“I’m torn – as a BlackBerry user for five to six years, I love the idea of the completely open platform, but as a person who has companies with BlackBerry(-specific) software, I do see the increased competition as being a bit of a threat,” says Mr. McInnes.

Still, there are lots of advantages to working with RIM’s native software kit, he notes: it allows developers to integrate games into BlackBerry Messenger, send push notifications for updates, or provide in-app payment capabilities, which means users can download a game for free and pay for advanced features within the application itself.

As well, it’s notoriously difficult to make money with an Android app, as many fans tend to balk at the prices Apple iOS and BlackBerry users are comfortable paying, Mr. McInnes says. Android piracy rates are sky-high, with anecdotal evidence indicating something like a 97-per-cent rate.

Once developers work out their monetization strategies, though, the advent of the tablet market in general presents a perfect opportunity for more app sales between compatible devices. It’s often just a matter of changing the screen resolution to make an iPhone app suitable for the iPad, and so on.

“There’s more useful screen real estate, and more potential,” says Richard Langevin, senior software development manager for MapleWorks, which is ramping up developer hiring in preparation for increased tablet interest.

Although the Gatineau software outsourcing firm, like Select Start, hasn’t really seen demand for PlayBook development, MapleWorks executives say the mobile space as a whole has been kind to the company, and the expectation is that it will extend into the tablet market.

As BlackBerryCool’s Mr. McInnes adds, “There’s tremendous benefit without that much work involved. If it was a new operating system, it would be a challenge for companies, but when you’re largely just dealing with different screen resolutions, it’s good for my companies, and I think it’s good for everyone.”

Organizations: Apple, Select Start Studios

Geographic location: Ottawa, U.S., FarmVille

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