Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Office or the Playground

There has been much wringing of hands and sucking of teeth over the future of Research in Motion, the BlackBerry® and PlayBook platforms. The central themes revolve around the level of competition, or the lack of competition RIM products are when lined up against Apple or Android smart phones and tablets. I've been writing code for BlackBerry for nearly six years now (and Android since it was released). As a contributor to Stack Overflow and BlackBerryForums.Com I've noticed that since the arrival of IOS and Android there has been an ever increasing volume of questions on how to do some particular thing on BlackBerry that is like this thing on IOS, or some other thing on Android. The person posing the question is all to often disappointed by the answer that it isn't possible to do what they want on BlackBerry. It dawned on me today that both of these situations spring from the same root cause: the majority of consumers, stockholders, developers and industry pundits believe BlackBerry, iPhone and Android are all interchangeable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I suppose it is natural for this idea to have gained a firm foot hold. BlackBerry, Apple and Android smartphones have all attracted the moniker of smart phone. All three make and receive phone calls and text messages, take pictures both still and motion, access the Internet and are each amazingly powerful general purpose computers, especially if you cut your IT teeth on an IBM mainframe or PDP-8. They all even share the same CPU architecture. The same similarities span the tablet offerings from each camp. Where they differ, and really where the competition ends (or should) is the operating system design and philosophy that powers each platform.

The office and the playground are not interchangeable. Both are important. Even indispensable in modern life. We need offices, or other places of employment to be productive contributing members of society. Offices have structured codes of conduct, policies, regulations and requirements that allow what ever business is conducted there to take place smoothly. Playgrounds on the other hand, are best when unstructured, with limited rules. Just enough to ensure safety and promote harmony.In an office, even in businesses where collaboration is vital, there are times when an employee should not be aware of what his cubicle neighbors are up to. This could be critical, or even a legal requirement in some offices. In a playground the best experience for all is usually achieved when everyone present can see what everyone else is up to. This makes the experience more enriching and satisfying. The office is structured the way it is to provide an environment where work can be done within the bounds of applicable regulation, privacy requirements, efficiently and hopefully profitably. The playground should be structured for maximum fun. That doesn't mean we can't have fun in the office, the occasional party, or a lunch time rubber of bridge. Ultimate Frisbee would be difficult to play in most cubical farms. On a pleasant day it may occasionally be productive to take the laptop out to the park and allow the change of scene to reinvigorate the creative juices. But too many days like that can weaken the bottom line, or cause heart palpitations in the head of IT security.

IOS and Android are very much the playgrounds of operating systems. They look nice and are are easy to use. They are designed to be accommodating to application designers providing maximum flexibility and minimum restrictions. It is easy for an application to find out what other applications are up to, even participate by enhancing or improving what other applications do. In Android a developer can even write a replacement keyboard that provides a better input strategy. It is no wonder when buyers have a choice they will often pick an IOS or Android device over a BlackBerry device. Neither is it a surprise that more developers will then write apps for the more popular and flexible platforms. I think those are good things. How many back yards or family rooms look like factories or office blocks. Certainly those devices can be used for business, but having been designed and built to attract consumers, the user experience comes first. Other considerations come after.

The BlackBerry platform was designed an built with business in mind. The latest devices share a lot in common with iPhone and Android devices. They look nicer and are easier and more enjoyable to use than any BlackBerry devices that came before. I expect this trend to continue. But the requirements of business come first. The operating system ensures that what one application is doing is private, unless the application and the user decide to share. With the introduction of the PlayBook RIM has also introduced the concept of Balance, the use of one device for business and personal needs. But the constraints of handling business data: security, reliability, speed; are still paramount and are designed and built in to the product from the lowest levels. Creating and maintaining a secure operating environment takes time, but not nearly so long as taking an insecure operating environment - pretty as it may be - and making it secure. If you need proof that RIM's strategy is good just look at the security history for each platform.

The Ford F-150 pickup was the best selling vehicle in America for 28 consecutive years. By smart phone market analysis thinking every car company on the continent should be making nothing but pickup trucks. I used to tell managers that if they were trying to decide if they should buy IBM Powerservers, or Sun SPARC servers what they really needed to to was put more time into defining the problem they needed to solve. Both products had their place in the enterprise. If you're in the smart phone or tablet market and you're trying to decide between something from RIM or something from the other guys, you really need to put more time into defining your needs and learning what each platform really does. Trust me, you will be far happier with whatever you purchase if you take that advice. When my wife and I went shopping for a new minivan we never once looked at a pickup truck. We had analyzed our requirements and knew we needed a van, not a truck. When I need to get work done at home, I go to my home office or pick up one of my BlackBerry devices. When I want to relax I paddle my kayak, go into the yard, out on the deck, down to the media room or use the iPad to plan my next astronomical photo session.

No, I think RIM is doing exactly what they should be doing from a development and production stand point. What they need is better marketing. At least that's the way I see it.

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