It’s easy to get excited over the many announcements made during last week’s BlackBerry Developer Conference. The second annual event unleashed big news for the platform. Everything from more talk on a forthcoming WebKit browser to real 3D gaming to support for Flash and vastly improved developer tools to create a wider variety of applications. Mobile developers took notice. RIM is actively looking to help anyone wanting to design applications for their devices. The big question, though, remains: just how will these new services actually run on a BlackBerry?
Is it possible to run 3D gaming, Flash, etc. on a BlackBerry’s limited device memory without causing memory leaks, forcing users to reboot the device?
As we mentioned in our conference wrap-up, the BlackBerry does support multiple applications running in the background, allowing the user to multitask – but at a price. The more applications you have running — say you’re streaming Pandora in the car while running a GPS application for turn-by-turn directions — the more likely you’re going to run into a memory leak that will cause your BlackBerry to go into a constant hourglass mode or “hose up” (the technical term;) )where the device essentially freezes until you reset it via a battery pull, press ALT+SHIFT+DEL on your (QWERTY keyboard) BlackBerry, or using an application like QuickPull to conduct the reset.
Essentially, the applications running on your handheld still take up some of the active device memory, even after you’ve closed out of the application — so if you’re running apps simultaneously on a BlackBerry, you’re very likely to run into this problem very quickly. The worst-case scenario? You may get one of a hundred dreaded Java Virtual Machine (JVM) error codes on your BlackBerry screen. In that situation, you’re likely going to have to reinstall your BlackBerry Operating System (OS)…and boy, is that always fun!
So the question that comes up when you see all these demos running the EA Mobile Need for Speed game or Flash on a BlackBerry, is “how in the heck will these devices be able to handle running these services?”
See, BlackBerry devices have very limited “app” memory. Take the Bold 9000, which has 1GB of on-board memory — and can support microSD cards of up to 32GB. Sounds great, right? The problem is that the Bold 9000 only has 128 MB of application memory (The Curve 8900, Storm2, and new Bold 9700 all have 256MB of app memory). So the thing is this: that meager 128 or 256MB — depending on your specific device — is used for all applications on your device, as well as the BlackBerry OS. That 8GB or higher microSD you may have installed? You can store songs, photos, and documents — but not applications themselves (merely archives to help speed up reinstalling an app later from App World if you deleted one to free up space on your BlackBerry).
That’s a huge difference from other device platforms, like the iPhone, where applications can take up as much of a user’s 8GB – 32GB device as needed. Al Sacco of CIO.com did an excellent post on the memory issue back in February, long before this year’s demos and announcements from RIM got all of us BlackBerry fans excited at all the new features 2010 will bring. When that article was originally published, the main takeaways from RIM were that (1) BlackBerry apps have traditionally been small to begin with, and (2) Users should delete any apps they want and just reinstall them from App World when they need them.
Point #1 may have been true one or two years ago, but those OpenGL graphics and games that were being pushed during the BlackBerry DevCon would certainly be more than a few megabytes. Point #2 isn’t a good sell either, since it’s not only unappealing to have to delete apps constantly and then reinstall them; it also emphasizes the BlackBerry’s greatest weakness — not enough application memory to run these apps to begin with.
So, will this hamper all of the dreams RIM has for unleashing services next year that really could put the device on-par with the very best Android or iPhone applications? If the application memory issue means that users have to delete everything else to run a game on their BlackBerry without crashing the device, then yes it will.
It’s very unlikely that we’ll see any devices in 2010 with a significant device memory increase, allowing app memory for BlackBerry devices to be on par with the iPhone or Android devices. Even if there were devices launched sometime in 2010 sporting 8GB or more of application memory, that wouldn’t be of any help to the current crop of Bold, Curve, or Storm users. So, where does that leave RIM?
Some developers during the conference speculated that since RIM and Adobe are emphasizing Flash on mobile handsets, that the application data could actually reside in Flash. While this could work, say for some games or some videos, I just don’t see it as a long-term solution. There’s a big difference between running YouTube videos in Flash, and expecting all applications to be developed and deployed via Flash.
The next path? RIM must eventually allow applications to be run directly from the microSD cards. Traditionally, RIM has shied away from this and leaning on their strict security policies. While the security aspect helps the enterprise and business user, RIM as a company is shifting focus to the consumer. It was clear during the DevCon demos, and it was clear with the winner from the Developer Challenge — developIQs 7digital music application.
If RIM’s goal is to compete with other mobile platforms and have developers create applications that are on the same level as other platforms, then the expectation users have is to be able to download and run the apps they want as they choose; not install one and delete others because their device has 256MB of app memory. The problem? It’s unlikely any BlackBerry fans will see this change come soon — so we all better stay used to battery pulls and device resets…for now.