New BlackBerry software will make your phone cooler

BlackBerry-maker RIM has announced a string of software updates for developers, which translates into better, more powerful applications for ordinary phone owners.

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Need For Speed-Shift by EA on Storm
EA demos a 3D car-racing game on the BlackBerry Storm. Photo by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

"OpenGL ES" and "Eclipse" may not mean much to you if you're not an application developer, but ordinary BlackBerry owners will soon be able to benefit from the string of announcements uncovered on Monday at RIM's second, annual BlackBerry Developer Conference.

BlackBerry-maker RIM announced on Monday enhancements to its BlackBerry application development platform--including four APIs for developers to more easily integrate ads, payment services, geolocation, and push notifications for third-party developers.

What does that mean for you? The new tools and features for developers should make it easier for them to create richer apps and do so faster. For instance, new support for OpenGL ES, a graphics API, makes it possible for developers to create 3D games for BlackBerry. Electronic Arts (EA) hopped on stage to demo the car-racing game Need for Speed-Shift on the Storm. The game includes new touch controls, like swiping to activate a speed boost or touching the screen to apply the brakes.

Very soon you'll start seeing visual themes and widgets available for purchase and download in BlackBerry's App World. RIM's new BlackBerry Theme Studio 5.0 will let developers include ringtones in themes. As a result, a theme you download through App World might replace your default ringtone with one that matches the visual theme, like the "Batman" theme song to mirror your "Batman" wallpaper. The ringtones sound very cool, but are limited to BlackBerry phones running the 5.0 operating system or higher.

Micropayments in BlackBerry App World
As Apple has done, RIM will soon be adding the capability to make in-app purchases on a BlackBerry. Photo by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In addition to finding themes and widgets in the App World for the first time, you'll soon be able to buy premium content not only through PayPal, the current purchasing model, but in 2010, through your monthly phone bill. Like Apple, RIM will be making subscriptions and micropayments available to developers. That will make it possible for users to unlock premium features in BlackBerry apps, like navigation apps, music apps, and games. iPhone games commonly make use of in-app purchasing.

BlackBerry owners can also look forward to seeing push notification not just for core BlackBerry apps, but also for apps created by third-party developers. In the near future, in addition to seeing a red circle or badge as an alert, applications can also insert a notification message into your in-box. Similarly, an app can schedule an event on your BlackBerry calendar, and will be able to call up the camera, as with iPhone, to snap a photo from within the app. We should see a rash of social-networking apps taking advantage of this feature.

Demonstrating location enhancements on Dash app.
Blurriness aside, apps like the forthcoming Dash can use RIM's new location features. Photo by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Most new BlackBerry smartphones contain GPS; when GPS isn't available, RIM is enabling location services that pinpoint your whereabouts using information from nearby cell phone towers.

RIM has also announced a new alliance with Adobe, which--in 2010--will let developers create applications with Flash 10, and with familiar Adobe Web development tools like Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Flex. New menu options within Adobe's CS4 applications will help developers create sophisticated graphics and animations, then test them on an emulator or on a smartphone.

The remaining question is, will the software improvements make potential iPhone users take notice? While the technology may differ between the iPhone and BlackBerry behind the scenes, one the surface, many of the new additions appear to be playing catch-up with capabilities already available in the iPhone--like micropayments, notifications for all third-party apps (before, this was limited to publishers who were part of the BlackBerry Alliance program, and for a price), and 3D graphics support. Regardless, whenever developers get a hand creating a greater variety of better-looking apps, users gain.

Updated at 5:15 pm PT to clarify the role of push notification in third-party applications and to correct the new additions to BlackBerry's developer services that Apple has already had.