I hate to admit it, dear reader, but I've lied to you - or at least misrepresented the truth.
Believe me (and I'm telling the truth now), it wasn't intentional. But any PDA pundit worth her salt shouldn't be pleading ignorance on the subject of software for Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices.
For some time, I've basically assumed there was little or none of it - and that's not correct. True, the quantity of BlackBerry apps pales in comparison to what's out there for Palm OS PDAs and Pocket PCs. But apps for RIM handhelds, particularly recent models, do exist, and lately BlackBerry programs have been rapidly increasing in number.
I know this now because of an e-mail message that landed in my inbox a couple of weeks ago. It was from a representative for Handango, the online store for all things handheld, from devices and accessories to software. The subject line of the message read: "How BlackBerry weighs in against Palm OS," and the headline for the included press release was "Third-Party Software for BlackBerry at the Tipping Point."
Intrigued (remember, I didn't think there was any software for BlackBerrys, let alone that BlackBerry software was a growth industry), I got on the phone with Clint Patterson, Handango's marketing vice president.
"That's a commonly held notion, that there's not much out there for BlackBerry," Patterson said, which made me feel a little better about my lack of punditry on the subject.
900 applications raring to to
Handango, he added, has some 900 applications that people can put on BlackBerrys. That's about twice as many were offered a year ago. Just to put things in perspective, Handango also stocks more than 25,000 Palm apps and more than 20,000 apps for devices based on Windows Mobile, Microsoft's latest moniker for the OS formerly known as Pocket PC. If variety is the spice of your PDA life, then you're still going to want a Palm OS- or Windows Mobile-based handheld.
But if you're one of those folks who can't imagine surviving without BlackBerry's admittedly first-rate e-mail capabilities (and I personally have encountered more than a few), you may not be limited to the software that comes preinstalled on the devices.
I say may because not all BlackBerrys are created equal in this regard. The more recent your model, the more likely it is to support interesting third-party software, Patterson says. If you have a color screen and can also use your BlackBerry as a phone (for instance, the 7100 model, reviewed here), then you're in good shape. If you're still toting around your old monochrome model to access your corporate e-mail, don't expect to use it for much more than that.
So what are all these BlackBerry applications? They include little utilities such as the Verichat universal instant messaging client (US$35), the WorldMate travel assistant ($50), and card games such as Aces Texas Hold'em ($10).
Users are not so corporate
Patterson describes the bulk of the offerings as "prosumer" apps to differentiate them from the custom enterprise and corporate-oriented programs you might expect for a handheld best known for its robust ability to deliver corporate e-mail to on-the-go managers and professionals.
But the demographics of BlackBerry owners are changing too. "Two years ago it was all attorneys, salespeople, and executives," Patterson said. "Now it's a much more diverse user base. You're seeing more sole practitioners, small businessmen, and moms buying BlackBerrys now."
And those kinds of BlackBerry owners are a lot more likely to buy extra software than their corporate counterparts. In fact, they're more likely to buy such apps than owners of other PDA-phone hybrids such as the PalmOne Treo 650 (read our Treo 650 review), Patterson says.
Consequently, Patterson says, "we're starting to see a massive uptick in the number of BlackBerry apps. We probably have twice as many today as we had a year ago."
Tough install has held back BlackBerry apps
Handango officials believe they'd be selling even more BlackBerry applications if finding and installing them were easier. Until now, you had to hunt down the apps (probably using your desktop browser) and either download them to your PC and use the Application Installer desktop applet to put them on the BlackBerry, or you had to find a WAP portal such as Handango that could perform an over-the-air installation.
"Historically, it's been kind of a pain to install applications on the BlackBerry," Patterson says.
Handango has come up with a simpler approach: It developed a free BlackBerry application of its own that can be used to browse, buy, and install other BlackBerry apps. Called Handango InHand, it can be easily acquired by pointing a BlackBerry browser to Mobile Handango and walking through the prompts. It took me all of 3 minutes to find and install Handango InHand on a BlackBerry 7100g from Cingular, after which InHand showed up as an entry on the applications menu.
Buy and pay - while mobile
When you launch InHand, you get a catalog of applications that you can update with a couple of jog-wheel clicks. The apps are organised by category, and when you see a title that sounds interesting you can pull up a capsule description that includes the cost. If you decide to buy it, a couple more clicks gets you to a payment screen. The easiest way to handle this chore is by setting up a Handango GoPass account ahead of time; then all you have to do on the BlackBerry is enter your account e-mail address and password. You can, of course, go the usual online purchase route of manually entering billing and credit card info, but this is even less entertaining a pastime on the BlackBerry than it is on a desktop browser.
Once your payment has been processed, a click or two more initiates the download and installation process. Using Handango InHand, in a few moments I acquired and was up and running with Expense Manager, a $6 business expense tracker reminiscent of Palm's Expenses applet, and a $5 puzzle game called Oasis.
InHand isn't perfect. It has a catalog update menu item that never really worked properly for me; when I selected it, the application would inform me it was performing the update and then hang. But it certainly made acquiring BlackBerry software a breeze - and now that I know there's a fair amount of software to acquire, I hope to check it out now and then.