Ina Fried

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RIM Is Counting on Web Tools to Help BlackBerry and PlayBook Appeal to Developers

Research in Motion ventured out of Waterloo into far sunnier San Francisco on Thursday, aiming to make the case that its products–both the BlackBerry line and forthcoming PlayBook tablet–will resonate with developers.

The company put together a panel of its own executives and third-party developers to talk about how the company is evolving its app story. Earlier on Thursday, the company announced the beta of a new BlackBerry Radio feature that brings together a number of different Web audio services into a single app.

Right now folks are just making introductions and peeking at a few PlayBook tablets that are scattered about. Mobilized is on hand and caffeinated and will provide some updates once the event really gets going. There’s already a lot of nerdy talk, so I won’t do a full play-by-play, but rest assured I will post updates when anything significant gets said.

Update, 3:25 pm PT: If you are just tuning in, you haven’t missed much. A lot of background on the company’s strategy so far, especially its Web-based apps. (Apparently we are not supposed to call them widgets, even though that’s what they used to be called.) The company’s tools, known as WebWorks, came out last September and allow such apps to take advantage of BlackBerry capabilities and security, while writing the apps using standard Web technologies.

For those who missed it, RIM now has in-app payments through its App World store. That’s a big deal in mobile these days–Apple introduced them last year and Google announced on Wednesday it is bringing them to Android. There are about 19,000 apps in the store, RIM said, and the App World store is in 90 countries.

The RIM exec has now popped up a whole bunch of apps and asks the audience to spot the ones built in WebWorks. Mobilized admits it’s hard to tell which of these were built with Web tools. That said, we’re not sure if that speaks highly of the Web framework or just highlights how far behind RIM is on the app front.

3:30 pm: Asked why they are supporting RIM, several developers on the panel point to the strength of WebWorks.

“We think the Web is a crazy thing to bet against,” says James Pearce, head of developer relations for Sencha.

The developers on the panel, who clearly have a strong bent for Web-based technologies, praise the fact that RIM is allowing developers to use Web tools yet still access device-specific capabilities such as the phone and other hardware components.

“By comparison, Apple sucks,” says Dylan Schiemann, co-founder of open-source JavaScript development technology DoJo. Schiemann adds that while HTML has a ton of limitations, it’s still better than other options that are less open, less compatible and harder to use.

3:45 pm: The developers are asked to look into their crystal ball and offer up projections on where mobile is headed in the next couple of years. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of talk about the power of the mobile Web (this is a very Web-centric panel). Other things predicted are devices with built-in projections and a lot more commerce taking place on the phone.

4:21 pm: Asked by Mobilized how the open Web is going to allow RIM to stand out from competitors (who also have modern browsers), RIM execs make the point that they aren’t just looking for browser-based apps, but allowing developers to use those tools to have deep access to the BlackBerry device, including features like BlackBerry Messenger.

As for RIM’s browser, Pearce and Schiemann say that RIM’s browser has closed the gap and perhaps pulled ahead vis à vis rivals when it comes to doing real work in the browser. Pearce says that historically, mobile browsers have been judged largely by how well they render full desktop pages. While that made sense in a world dominated by such pages, Pearce says that the more important criteria now is how well a mobile platform lets developer use Web tools to create powerful apps.

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