At the PlayBook announcement in 2010, BlackBerry revealed support for applications running Adobe AIR. After a four year run, that relationship is coming to an end when BlackBerry OS 10.3.1 is released later this year.
The removal of the AIR runtime is so that BlackBerry can save money on the licensing fees that are currently being paid to Adobe. BlackBerry is currently looking to save any cash that it can, and while the exact amount of money being paid is unknown, statements made on recent earnings calls imply that it is around half a billion dollars.
While getting rid of Adobe AIR may make sense today, the situation was a bit different back in 2010.
In September of 2010, BlackBerry (then Research in Motion) announced the PlayBook tablet which would run on top of a new operating system and support applications written in a variety of different runtimes. By November it was already clear that the Adobe AIR platform was significantly ahead of other development options for the tablet. And by the time the PlayBook launched in April 2011 this was still the case.
When the PlayBook launched, over 99% of third party apps were written in either AIR or the HTML5 based Webworks platforms. The ability to create native apps was restricted to just a handful of select partners until the tablet got upgraded to OS 2.0 in February of the following year (at which point support for some Android apps was also added). Additionally, at this time all Webworks apps were actually dependent upon the Adobe AIR runtime as well. In fact the majority of the pre-installed first party apps on the PlayBook were also AIR applications. In the rush to get the new platform launched it seemed as if this was the only SDK that was truly ready in time.
In the spring of 2011 when the PlayBook launched, Adobe was still trying to push for flash content on mobile, so BlackBerry’s promotional team (mistakenly) believed that support for Flash and other Adobe technologies was something that could be capitalized on. Of course most consumers have no clue about what the underlying technologies are, and the few that do know about the technology also know that it doesn’t matter.
In 2012 as BlackBerry began preparing for the launch of BlackBerry 10, the focus had moved away from ActionScript and more towards writing native apps with the Cascades framework. Webworks apps were reconfigured so that they were no longer dependent upon the AIR framework, and instead ran as native apps. Adobe AIR was not yet abandoned, and even got a number of new UI components that (poorly) mimicked the look and feel of the Cascades framework. Still it was clear that AIR no longer had the emphasis that it once had, and instead was kept around mostly to give BlackBerry 10 compatibility with the large number of PlayBook apps that were available by this point. That fall at the BlackBerry Developer conference in San Jose it was revealed that there were only two developers still working on the AIR framework, and that third party developers shouldn’t expect much in terms of updated runtimes.
By the time the BlackBerry Z10 launched in January 2013, the company had mostly moved on. Support for Flash which had been so promoted on the PlayBook was disabled by default in the BlackBerry 10 browser. The few AIR apps that were still around (such as the settings app) stood out as being slow and clunky compared to the rest of the OS. With the release of BlackBerry 10.2 later in the year the settings app was rewritten in native code, and today there is no reason to believe that any of the first party apps make any use of Adobe’s framework.
Later this year BlackBerry will update their mobile OS to version 10.3.1 and the Adobe AIR runtime will no longer be included. At that point any remaining apps that make use of the framework will stop working. In the months until then developers are left with the decision of what to do with their existing AIR apps. Some will simply be abandoned and cease to exist. Some will be expertly ported over to supported SDKs and continue to work (and maybe even get better). Many apps will be ported poorly.
It is sad that backwards compatibility for some apps needs to be destroyed so early in the life of BlackBerry’s new operating system, but until more revenue can be generated from selling BlackBerry phones, that platform will not be able to be as ambitious as it wishes to be.