(Source: Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox)
BB10 Alpha devices are looking nice, pair of SDKs gives developers a broad selection of languages to work with

It's no secret that Research in Motion, Ltd. (TSE:RIM) has fallen on hard times.  The Canadian phonemaker had long seen successful, helping define what we today know as a smartphone.  By Oct. 2009 that success had paid off with almost a 50 percent market share in the hot new market.

But something has gone terribly wrong for RIM.  Perhaps it was the sleek Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930) and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) smartphones.  Perhaps it was RIM's lack of apps and poor marketing.  But whatever the reason, RIM's sales today stand at about 4 percent of the market, the company is posting losses, and there's speculation of a possible acquisition/takeover [1][2][3].

I. RIM Unveils Eye-Catching Alpha Testing Hardware

RIM's tardy BlackBerry 10 operating system, which it today released in preview form to select developers, is an ultra-critical release, as it likely represents RIM's last shot at regaining relevance in the consumer market and staving off a takeover.

The Alpha BB10 Development Platform [Image Source: CrackBerry]

The new OS will be hardened with the kind of rich hardware that was long denied to BlackBerry users: 4.5+ inch multi-touch screens, LTE modems, and blazing fast mobile system-on-a-chip processors.  The dev platform featured today looks pretty slick in its own right for being a development device, borrowing much from the Apple iPhone's well received "rectangular brick" design.

What little is known about the dev device's release replacement, code-named "London", comes from leaks which shows a large, slender touchscreen handheld.

The software released today includes an Alpha build of the new operating system, which looks vaguely like Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Ice Cream Sandwich, but even more its QNX twin, PlayBook OS, which power RIM's titular tablet.  Like Apple and Google, RIM does not stray far from the tired "Chiclet grid" design philosophy, a status quo that has thus far only been broken by Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFTeye-catching Windows Phone user interface.

II. Web Languages vs. Native Development: "Why Pick?" Says RIM

While the early build does not appear to provide much differentiation from Apple and Google visually, it does offer some promising advantages.  RIM is pushing Native SDK  (NDK) with Cascades, a C/C++ set of APIs, paired with the Qt lightweight GUI framework.  

This approach is similar to Apple, who pushes native development almost exclusively for the iPhone, and differs from Google, who pushes cross-platform Java for Android developers.  While the disadvantage of Android's relative lack of native code has been eroded by Android's inclusion of just-in-time (JIT) compilers, the support for C/C++ may give RIM a bit of a leg up, assuming it can get developers to actually care about its platform.

HTML5 and Java development will also be supported, with the emphasis on the former technology.  Web language development is facilitated by a second SDK -- dubbed the WebWorks SDK.

Just as the NDK may give RIM developers some advantages over Android devs, the WebWorks SDK may provide some advantages versus as Apple.  Google has long benefited from the portability of its Android Java apps.  While Java may make programming games from scratch a bit more of a chore, supporting web languages allows for easy style-sheet (CSS) driven business/news apps and quick ports of simpler web game titles (assuming they weren't in Flash).

The NDK is available here and WebWorks SDK is available here.  RIM is currently holding an event called "BlackBerry 10 JAM" for developers in Orlando, FL.  Attending developers get one of the slick Alpha test phones for free.

BlackBerry Jam

III. The Best (or Worst) is Yet to Come

Despite the big unveil, the meatiest part of RIM's BB10 pseudo-launch is the pair of software development kits and the alpha development devices.

More details are expected to come this summer when RIM unveils its launch lineup for BlackBerry 10 and what existing devices will receive the bump.  The company's PlayBook tablet and possibly some of its more hardware-endowed smartphones (such as the Torch series) are considered likely to receive the bump.

RIM Sign
[Image Source: BGR]

With its future riding on the line RIM is surely praying for a big hit with BlackBerry 10.  But the ultimate success or failure of the platform, and the finer details of the platform's hardware/software will not be known until much later this year.  Until then RIM will likely to continue to be pummeled on the market share as its sales wither.

RIM is learning the hard way the lesson learned by Nokia Oyj., which has seen customers forsake its condemned-to-death Symbian platform; no one wants to be on a sinking ship when it comes to smartphone operating systems.

Sources: RIM, CrackBerry

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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