It was a busy summer for the smartphone wars. The iPhone 4 brought developers fresh hardware to target, while Google’s Android platform outsold Apple’s platform for the first time in July. Meanwhile, third-place smartphone maker, Research in Motion, unveiled both an operating-system update, BlackBerry 6, and a new handset, Torch 9800.

But the BlackBerry Torch faces stiff competition for developer attention, said Al Hilwa, program director for applications development software at IDC. He said that one of the biggest issues, until now, has been the lack of application distribution and discovery tools for the BlackBerry. Both the Android and iPhone app stores offer thousands of third-party applications in easily discoverable locations.

In addition to upgrading its hardware and software, RIM began promoting updates to its app store, called App World. The company also provided new APIs for developers, mainly around billing and advertising service.

Even with all the new goodies, RIM is handicapped by the massive lead enjoyed by Apple and Google in the app store game, said Hilwa. But even when the BlackBerry App Store begins to fill up with new software, he said there’s another major problem to be overcome: platform fragmentation.

“The difference of writing for RIM is a lot to do with the diversity of devices that RIM already has in its legacy base,” said Hilwa. “There are different screen sizes and different hardware. A lot of this has to do with the fact that RIM was doing messaging before everyone else, so some of their devices are really old. It’s hard to target them all. You have to make a decision as a developer as to which device to target.”

Thus, RIM’s head start in the smartphone game (it entered the market years before Apple) has all but evaporated as each new device adds new capabilities. Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester, said that, in fact, the historic BlackBerry devices are all but thrown overboard with the release of BlackBerry 6.

But Mike Kirkup, RIM’s director of developer relations, said that all hardware makers have this problem. “It is true, but the flip side is that’s true for every person that makes a handset today,” he said.

“It’s the same with Apple and Nokia. They all have this problem. It was the same for Windows in the PC era. The difference is that in the smartphone world, things are happening so much faster, so you tend to see more of that fragmentation.”

Kirkup went on to say that older BlackBerry applications written in Java continue to work on modern devices, and that the new BlackBerry 6 Web Widgets will also be able to run on OS 5 devices. Web Widgets are the new application category on BlackBerry devices, which are halfway between a native Java application and a Web-based application.

Hitting par
Golvin said that BlackBerry 6 isn’t about new features or innovation; it’s about getting the platform onto equal footing with Apple and Google. Thus, the introduction of a WebKit-based browser by BlackBerry, which happens to be the same browser used by both Android and iPhone.

“I think a great deal of what they’ve done with BlackBerry 6 and Torch is sort of get to par,” said Golvin. “You can pick nits about which features are superior, but the main point is that the gaps are not as big as they were before. It’s the real native applications that are driving the market.”

Add to that the fact that developers have already been raking in the cash on Android and iPhone applications. With Apple claiming over a billion dollars paid to developers so far, and with the high industry visibility of Android as a fast-moving competitor, it’s tough to convince mobile-focused coders to consider any other platforms, said IDC’s Hilwa.

Still, the BlackBerry platform does offer some benefits over the competition, said Kirkup. “We’re showing people our differentiators, like being able to run applications in the background, and being able to use push notification.”

“I think developers have voted with their feet,” said Hilwa. “That’s because even though on the surface the RIM installed base is huge and attractive, not all of the devices can be targeted. Developers are going to go for applications that are easy to construct. Targeting 10% of 30% of the market share may still be less devices than Android. It’s a tough decision for developers.”

Things may only get more difficult as Windows Phone 7 launches this fall. While that phone has neither a user base nor developer support, Hilwa said that Microsoft’s development tools and environment may make for a more compelling developer experience than the one offered by RIM. Indeed, he said, RIM may have to fight just to remain in third place.

What’s new in BlackBerry 6?

By Alan Zeichick
According to RIM, there are more than 40 new and enhanced APIs in BlackBerry 6 available to developers, organized in four groups:

• Rich UI: Incorporate new menu, tables and tabs APIs
• Browser: Build dynamic websites, apps and widgets
• Device Integration: Integrate with core smartphone apps
• Enhanced Services: Help users find their location

For consumers, the operating system now offers multiple customizable views available from the screen, as well as context-sensitive menus. The system also has a universal search engine that looks through the device’s applications or data, the Web, or the new BlackBerry App World store.

The WebKit-based browser is used both for viewing Web pages and for viewing HTML e-mail. The operating system adds direct social media feeds for AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other instant-messaging systems.

To go along with BlackBerry 6 is a desktop application, which the company said syncs with Apple’s iTunes and Microsoft’s Windows Media Player—and also lets users view and access their entire iTunes or Windows Media Player music libraries from their BlackBerry.

BlackBerry 6 was launched mid-August on RIM’s Torch smartphone, which is also new. According to the company, it will be backward-compatible with “select” BlackBerry devices already on the market, specifically the Bold 9650, Bold 9700 and Pearl 3G.