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Interview with Author and BlackBerry Developer John Wargo

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Posted 11-06-2009 at 10:31 AM by Pinjo
Updated 11-06-2009 at 10:36 AM by Pinjo


There has been a ton of publicity lately about new Blackberry devices on the horizon, OS 5.0 and the BlackBerry Widget SDK. However, the upcoming BlackBerry Developers Conference got me thinking about John Wargo’s book. For those of you who are not familiar with John, he is a former employee of Research in Motion who had the responsibility of educating RIM customers on developing applications for the BlackBerry platform.

At WES this past May, John mentioned that he was writing a book called “BlackBerry Development Fundamentals” and to expect its release in the fall. I found his flier in my WES schwag pile (yes, I still have one) and checked out his website http://www.bbdevfundamentals.com where I found out that the book is going to be officially released on November 9.

I got in contact with John in mid-October and he was gracious enough to sit down for an interview and give me the lowdown on his book.


Q: Thank you for sitting down with me today John. Let’s start off by telling me about the book.
Well, the book is all about BlackBerry development. Inside it is everything a developer needs to get started with BlackBerry development. The book is laid out the way I would do a complete course on BlackBerry development – starting with the basics and working through all of the topics. The book uses the information in early chapters to enhance subsequent chapter content. It’s not a Java book although there are 6 chapters dedicated to Java development and Java development tools. It covers the foundations like data connection paths and MDS, three chapters on Push, Browser applications (BlackBerry browser capabilities, developing browser applications for BlackBerry and testing/debugging browser applications), Java development for BlackBerry (including how to use the tools, debug/test and deploy applications) and more.

It doesn’t assume you want to do Java development, which most people think is the only option, but tries to give you the fundamentals on all aspects of the topic. The THREE chapters on Application Data Push presents the topic differently than it has ever been covered before – anywhere!

Q: What prompted to write your book and why do you feel that writing this book was important?
When I joined Research In Motion, I had to quickly come up to speed on BlackBerry development in order to be able to do my job. I had a ton of development experience (more than 20 years experience as a professional developer and a couple of award winning commercial software products under his belt) but I struggled to find the information I needed to learn BlackBerry development.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of really good information on the BlackBerry Developer’s web site (http://www.blackberry.com/developers), but you have to kinda already know what you’re trying to do to use the information that’s up there. Even the overviews of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and Mobile Data System (MDS) were full of marketing speak and feature lists when what I really wanted to know was not only what it did but how and why it did it. The how’s and why’s of any technology are an important part of how I learn. When looking at the various development tool options, the BlackBerry Java Development Environment (JDE), BlackBerry MDS Studio (now with an announced end of life scheduled for December 31, 2009) and Browser development, nowhere was there a document that compared and contrasted the options to you had help deciding on which one to use for a new application project.

So much of the information was buried deep inside the developer knowledge base, which wasn’t really searchable, or in the heads of the RIM old timers. I was able to get the information I needed, but I had to either spend a lot of time browsing around until I found it or bug the internal developers I knew until I got the information. I learned what I needed to learn, but it just wasn’t easy.

I spent a lot of time in the field working with Research In Motion customers – educating them on the capabilities of the platform and the tools and quickly learned that the corporate developer community was having the same difficulty I was having. Research In Motion’s ISV partners had dedicated support resources at their disposal, but ‘Frank the Developer’ working in an office somewhere or the hobbyist dipping his feet in the BlackBerry waters was a bit overwhelmed by the size of the ocean.

The book is important because there’s really only source of information for BlackBerry developers, everything on the BlackBerry Developer web site, and there needed to be a different perspective. There needed to be something that covered the options from beginning to end and designed for the beginning and moderately experienced developer. The experienced BlackBerry Java developers don’t need it.

Q: How do you feel it compares to others on the market? Differs? What hole does it fill?
There aren’t any other BlackBerry Development-only books in the market right now, so I’d say it compares rather favorably. I’d even be willing to say it’s the best book of its kind on the market.

Seriously though, there are only a couple of books on the market that touch upon BlackBerry development topics, but none actually dedicated to BlackBerry development. It’s been a while since I looked at it, but Craig J. Johnston’s Professional BlackBerry is now four years old and covered administrator, user and development related topics. The same thing can be said for O’Reilly’s BlackBerry Hacks; it came out about the same time and is primarily an end-user book. It has a couple of ‘hacks’ dedicated to BlackBerry development topics, but it can’t be called a developer book. BlackBerry Development Fundamentals is dedicated to BlackBerry development only and goes into much greater detail.

It is interesting to note though that all of a sudden there are a lot of BlackBerry books coming out about the same time as mine; there are even a couple more development books on their way. Anthony Rizk’s book called Beginning BlackBerry Development is due out in November. It’s a book for Java developers, as it covers only Java development and is written as a series of tutorials. I’ve had some conversations with Anthony and you should see that the two books complement each other nicely. There’s Advanced BlackBerry Development, which is a sort of sequel to Anthony’s book, and a new Dummies book called BlackBerry All-in-One For Dummies coming that is going to be nine books in one and cover a wide range of topics, but probably will not be very developer focused. Both are expected out in early 2010.

By the way, because of these books and more coming out soon I decided to build a site to act as a clearing house for information on all blackberry books, it’s at http://www.blackberrybooks.org and I’ll start populating it with information as soon as I really wrap this one up. I’ll post information about all available BlackBerry books, allow people to write reviews, comments and even rate books. I’ll also let authors write their own profiles about their books – let them talk about them more conversationally than they can on the back cover.

NOTE: Anthony Rizk’s book Beginning BlackBerry Development has been released since this interview was conducted.

Q: In your past life with RIM, you assisted many companies in training BlackBerry developers. What did you see or learn from those companies in regards to vision and preparedness?
I saw a lot of different things in the companies I worked with.

All of them saw that mobile applications were coming, but many of them really didn’t know what to do about it. The people I worked with knew that the organization would have a need for mobile applications, but in many cases didn’t yet see the executive sponsorship needed to move it along.

In most cases, there wasn’t a dedicated mobile development tea, which really is a requirement, and companies were struggling with how to actually do the development. Companies had development teams, but few with the skills to cover the mobile part of it. This is actually the book’s sweet spot and probably the biggest reason I wrote the book, sorry for the shameless plug.

Many companies expected that BlackBerry development was proprietary in some way, bought into the Microsoft Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) about the platform. They assumed that since the platform was proprietary and the BES was proprietary you somehow had to do ‘special’ development to work on the BlackBerry platform. That was true for MDS Runtime development, but it is definitely not true for browser and Java development as I highlight in the book.

Experienced mobile developers were ready to jump in, but people just getting started just didn’t know where to get started. If I’d speak with a customer and explain to them all of the capabilities of the platform and the free tools they could use to build these apps, they would listen intently and take a bunch of notes but when I’d visit them months later, nothing would have happened. If I’d been able to hand them a book, rather than pointing them to a web site, I’m certain more would have actually happened.

For many companies, building Java applications for BlackBerry wasn’t a problem for them especially since so many developers are leaving college knowing Java. Other companies though, because of their adoption of Microsoft technologies, had issues. They usually wanted to try to support both Windows Mobile and BlackBerry, but because of the technology chasm would have to either use the browser for these apps or build and maintain two versions of the application; something .Net such as Visual Basic or C# and another one in Java. This is probably the biggest problem Research In Motion needs to solve... and I’m not sure how hard they’re trying to solve it. Even though Java will run on both platforms, for some off reason people just don’t think to write a JME application and run it on both. They continue to ‘see’ BlackBerry and Windows Mobile being separate, incompatible systems when in reality they aren’t.

Q: Do you feel companies are behind in BlackBerry Development?
Yes, I definitely do.

I have talked with a lot of customers about their future plans and surprisingly BlackBerry applications in most cases are still far off in the future. Even though these organizations are receiving real, measurable business value from these mobile devices, they’re not quite ready to start deploying mobile applications, which I believe will only increase the value of BlackBerry. In today’s economy, getting more value out of something you’re already paying for is very important.

BES 5.0 is going to do a lot to help resolve this issue. With BES 4.x it’s just way too hard to manage deploying multiple applications to a large audience. Due to some limitations of the BES, the number of BlackBerry Software Configurations an administrator would need to create to manage deployment of several applications is mind boggling. With BES 5.0 those limitations all go away and it works like it should have worked all along.

Q: How has BlackBerry Development changed over the past few years? Has it grown due to need (keep up with the Jones') or want (customer or employee offerings)?
Most people are probably going to disagree with me on this one, but I really don’t think is has changed much in the last few years. There have been incremental changes, but not anything earth shattering. Finally making the BlackBerry Browser JavaScript DOM read/write was a big thing, but Research In Motion can’t brag too much about it because everyone else had been doing that for a long time. I think BlackBerry Widgets are pretty cool and it’s great that they’re based on a standard, but the jury’s out on how much they’ll be used... especially since no devices exist that can use them yet. Expect to see me writing a bit about Widgets on JohnWargo.com in the next few months. I expect to be digging into them now that beta tools are available.

Research In Motion has been very smart in not trying to do too much at one time. They continue to add very powerful features to the device, both in hardware and API’s, so there’s always something new and sexy to do with the device, but nothing that dramatic. They’ve maintained their strong support of standards and let the market help drive what the BlackBerry should do from an application development standpoint.
This isn’t a bad thing, but I’d expect RIM to just continue to follow standards as much as possible and let the market drive what a device can do. They’ll continue to innovate in hardware and technology, but I’m not expecting anything earth shattering from them on the development side. We’re finally going to be seeing Adobe Flash on a BlackBerry and It would be VERY interesting to see a mono (http://mono-project.com) implementation on BlackBerry, but I just don’t see that ever happening...at least in my lifetime.

Q: Do you see any Development trends going forward?
Everything is going to be done in the browser. The iPhone has done several things in/to the market: they’ve shown how cool apps can be on a mobile device (this has actually helped RIM) but they’ve ignored many standards,such as Java and mobile markup languages. In order for an organization to be able to support multiple platforms (which they are just going to HAVE to do, no choice) mobile applications will have to be created using the only technology that all mobile applications support and that’s plain, old HTML.

Q: What do you see as an incentive for people learning BlackBerry or Mobile App development as a whole?
Mobile is the future. While predicted a long time ago, I’m starting to regularly see that executives and others are no longer being equipped with laptops. They probably use a PC at the office, but when mobile they’re using or expected to use a smartphone. Nobody wants to carry two or more devices anymore, so the mobile device is going to win. Developers with mobile development skills are going to be highly sought after.

Q: What is RIM doing to help Developers?
A lot.

They’re recognizing that some of their existing documentation just doesn’t address the needs of the beginning developer so they’re revamping the web site, adding labs, video demonstrations and updating their documentation to make it easier to understand.

They’ve added the BlackBerry Developer’s Blog (http://supportforums.blackberry.com/.../bg-p/dev_blog) and have been posting some pretty interesting articles up there.

They’re writing more white papers and knowledge base articles to help educate new developers.
They’re supposed to be or have, but I haven’t really tested it yet, FINALLY updating their knowledge base so search actually returns the information you need.

They’re not sitting still. I’ve had quite a few conversations with Mike Kirkup about the developer web site and associated documentation and they clearly want to make it better for everyone.

Q: What is RIM not doing to help Developers?
The only complaint I have -and it’s the distilling of a whole bunch of things- is that from what I can tell, RIM collectively has this view in its head that it knows what developers need and makes decisions based upon that view. Unfortunately that approach really only works for ISV partners and experienced mobile developers. In so much of the information available to developers, RIM has documented the ‘what’ of developer topics but completely misses the ‘why’ and sometimes the ‘how’ of the same topics. They need to provide more ‘why’ information – that would help developers who are just learning this stuff.
Another thing they’re not doing, although they seem to be changing that, is using figures in their documentation. Too many times, all you get are a list of steps and nothing more. The documentation showing how to use the eJDE or MDS Studio would explain the steps: “Click the open button. Click Next. Click Next’ but anyone working through the document could easy get lost as they move from screen to screen. Adding figures to the walk-throughs allows the learner to follow the context of the demonstration – it’s too easy to not know which dialog you’re supposed to click ‘next’ in if you don’t have a screen shot to help you keep your place.

Q: Final question and I’ll let you get out of here. Where can people get your book?
You can get it online at your usual places: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and even Target. All of them have been taking pre-orders until the official release date. My publisher will also be onsite at the Blackberry Developers Conference next week selling copies and RIM also currently has me scheduled for a “Meet the Author” event. I think that’s on Thursday, but don’t hold me to that.

I’m far from a developer, but I’ve been lucky enough to attend some of John’s BlackBerry Development sessions at past WES Conferences. Granted, I went for the free drinks and goodies at first, but I did stay to listen to the content, which I attribute to John’s dynamic speaking ability and his methods of teaching things for anyone to understand. I’m one of the many who have loathed learning Blackberry Development due to Java, but after talking with John, I’m excited to learn about all of the possible development methods that are not hardcore Java related

If you’re lucky enough to attend the Developer’s Conference, and get a chance to say Hi to John while passing between sessions or at the “Meet the Author” event, please do. If you have never met John, he is super friendly and quite intelligent. Buy him a drink or two and he gets even friendlier.
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  1. Old Comment
    Otto's Avatar
    Great interview, Pinjo!
    permalink
    Posted 11-09-2009 at 09:20 PM by Otto Otto is offline
 

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