RIM: reaping the benefits of open source
by Mary Branscombe
Since we spoke to RIM about an open source strategy we called pragmatic back in February, BlackBerry 10 hasn't materialised but RIM's promised open source commitments have. The company has stuck to the open source approach it promised even when there have been setbacks, and Mary Branscombe finds that it seems to be paying dividends – like contributions from the open source community and high browser compatibility scores.
Open source has flowered inside RIM says Tim Neil, RIM's director of application platform and tools. "Two years ago we had our very first open source project at RIM. We had to push it through but we pushed and pushed and now we've got 67 repositories and over 150 different contributors."
Perhaps more important than the numbers is that open source is part of the mind-set. "Internally, we're at the point where open source is totally part of our way of doing business; everyone will consider it as part of their strategy," Senior Technical Director for Open Software, Eduardo Pelegri Llopart told us. "In fact I'm at the point where I have to track it a bit more aggressively internally because I have to remind them to check with me…"
That's resulted in a plethora of smaller projects, like the cross-platform Gameplay project for indie game developers: it covers Android, iOS and Windows as well as BlackBerry 10 and it's getting community contributions from people who are surprised to find the project came from RIM. There are BlackBerry 10 themes for jQuery mobile, Dojo and Sencha from RIM and just before the recent BlackBerry Jam developer conference in San Jose, RIM released a BlackBerry plugin for Eclipse for Java developers (something Pelegri Llopart called an "on-going conversation" in February). "We have a plugin for Visual Studio but we haven't released it as open source yet," he says. The reason? "We just haven't had time."
But the big news is that RIM is releasing the Ripple web application emulator (a cross platform emulator based on Qt and WebKit that it developed for its WebWorks developer tool) as the company's first Apache project – in large part because other companies want to contribute to it as an open source project. "We were working closely with the PhoneGap-Cordova-Adobe guys and really pushing Ripple to be the top emulation for Web apps," explains Neil. "[Before Adobe bought them] we were talking to Nitobi and saying 'you're an acquisition target' and Microsoft were telling them the same. We were encouraging them to move their technology to a foundation where we could all contribute. And now we've been getting the same thing back from Adobe about Ripple, saying "can you move it into a foundation?"
Tapping the WebKit trunk
The BlackBerry 10 browser is the most obvious place where RIM is already benefiting from open source. It has the highest score on the HTML5 Test site for any mobile browser: "Our numbers are so good because we're so close to the trunk of WebKit," says Pelegri Llopart. "We've put our money where our mouth is and built the entire browser in WebKit," Tim Neil confirms (that includes the browser chrome and interface with only the loader being a native app, although RIM isn't making any of that that open source). "The browser team updates it almost once a month; they rebase it and bring it back."
After a hiatus when RIM bought them, the Torch browser team is once again contributing code to WebKit. They plan to stay up to date with WebKit once BlackBerry 10 is released too. "It does mean a lot of work to fix it up," Neil admitted, but having a powerful, up-to-date mobile browser is going to be a key feature for RIM when the new handsets ship in 2013, especially if BlackBerry 10 users update as quickly as PlayBook users (90% of whom upgrade to maintenance releases within a month).
After the recent changes to the HTML5 Test site, the BlackBerry 10 browser score dropped from the mid-380s to 365, but RIM vice president Chris Smith told The H: "we're committed to getting to 465".
Reassuringly, Neil points out that "there's having the scores and there's having it implemented well in the browser, and that's what we're concentrating on." He promises "more performance" in the browser and generally drops hints about "wonderful things". That might be about WebGL and hardware acceleration, which could be what frees RIM up to have as open a browser strategy as it is developing; "to have HTML5 apps take off to provide a genuinely performant experience you need access to acceleration," he says. "Today it's not across every single handset to the degree that it needs to be; we want to be ahead of the pack in making it available to our users and developers."