First RIM roiled its shrinking universe of users and developers with a single tweet about ending side-loading of apps on its PlayBook tablet. And then the company created more confusion with a blog post this week that was supposed to give "nuance" to the tweet.
And it's still not clear whether RIM plans simply to block side-loading as it's currently understood and practiced among PlayBook users, or to modify it and limit it. Side-loading, which is also an issue in other mobile platforms, is the ability to install applications outside of an official "app store," in this case BlackBerry App World.
The confusion started during an April 4 exchange on Twitter between Alec Saunders (@asaunders), RIM's vice president of developer relations, and a number of his followers. Mohamed Rizk (@Spy520e), a BlackBerry developer from Doha, Qatar, asked Saunders via tweet, "Heard you're removing Side Loading from OS 2.1, that's ok, but any workaround to test apps other than Simulator?"
BlackBerry developers use side-loading to install an app in development, test it and debug it, before submitting it to the online marketplace.
Saunders' reply: "we're removing side-loading for consumers. Pretty sure we've got a solution for devs."
Replies started immediately. "please dear god no! re: no side-loading in future. I feel a hole is being filled w/ side-loading and is not even fully filled," tweeted test @t35ttw1tt3r, adding in a second post: "unless the key app gap is filled I would beg to keep side-loading."
"Removing side-loading would remove a lot of functionality my PB has," tweeted ADavidson (@davidson25). "Kindle, Zynga games, Google maps, Soundcloud to mention a few." ADavidson added later: "more than half the apps I use are sideloaded and there's no sign of them in [BlackBerry] app world."
In his follow-up tweets, Saunders said developers are pushing for an end to side-loading so their apps won't be pirated. "We've got devs who refuse to work with us until it's gone. Sorry guys." And he pointed to the growing number of BlackBerry apps available at the online store: "like I said -- working it. 25,000 new apps submitted last quarter. Our best developer quarter EVER."
The comments quickly spilled over into other online forums, like this one at CrackBerry.com. A range of posters, identifying themselves as developers, were in agreement with Saunders' evaluation.
"I never once heard them say that they were giving people the chance to sideload," posted Flexin. "They were offering a Android player to make it easy for dev to port over apps. They can't force people to do it. Some did it, a lot didn't. You're taking it a step farther. That's up to you but if they remove it they are not taking away anything they said they would give you. If the Android player is still there then they are still doing what they said [they would do]."
The Android player was introduced as part of PlayBook OS 2.0, released in February, intended to let PlayBook users download and run apps created for the Android OS. Within a week, RIM claimed there were "thousands" of Android apps available. RIM is in the midst of a complex transition to a new operating system, BlackBerry 10, for both the PlayBook and the next generation of BlackBerry smartphones.
On April 10, Saunders took to a RIM blog to expand on his tweets and "set the record straight." "Unfortunately, 140 characters doesn't allow for nuance," he posted. "I'd like to take this opportunity to set the record straight for our developer community."
"We're not getting rid of side-loading on the BlackBerry PlayBook OS or in BlackBerry 10," he declared, more or less directly contradicting the tweet that started the confusion. "Side-loading on our platform is changing in nature."
He stressed that side-loading is intended for software writers. "Side-loading is a developer feature. It exists so that developers can load their apps onto their own devices to test. It's there so developers can send a beta release to their testing community for review. It is definitely not there for some people to side load a pirated app," he wrote.
"What are we doing," he asked rhetorically. "Starting with our next release of the BlackBerry PlayBook OS, we're introducing a feature that will encrypt apps so they can only be run by the user who purchased the app." He didn't elaborate on the implications of such a feature.
"We're working with you, our developer community, to ensure you can still quickly and easily test your apps on real hardware," he posted. He reiterated RIM's pledge to hand out prototype devices for developers, along with the first look at the official BlackBerry 10 native SDK tool at the upcoming "BlackBerry 10 Jam" event for developers at the annual BlackBerry World user conference in Orlando.
In response to a reporter's query for clarification, RIM's PR team provided a link to Saunders' blog post.
At the CrackBerry forum, one poster, ad19, wrote in response, "Looks like side-loading is here to stay, but in a modified version. If implemented correctly, I think this should work just fine."
"I'm cautiously optimistic on this," agreed another, with the handle of TBone4eva. "It means that RIM is saying that [they] are only protecting apps from being pirated from App World, but not disabling development mode completely by encrypting the App World apps so they can't be sideloaded. I think that is completely fair."
But another user, BuzzStarField, posted: "Note also that there is already a method available to 'side-load' unsigned apps to PB so that we can test them. This method uses a type of temporary authorization known as 'debug tokens'. - and this method is much more efficient than loading signed apps. We do not know how RIM is going to allow us to distribute signed apps for beta testing or even if they will."
"Speculation is futile and may or may not involve side-loading or it may or may not include App World enhancements," he continued. "Or it may be something else. Don't speculate and you won't be disappointed. Developers worry about these things - consumers should not."
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed
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