The Android-To-PlayBook App Repackaging Experience

Posted in Android, Blackberry by Dan on February 11th, 2012

Having convinced myself that I’d quite like a new Blackberry PlayBook courtesy of RIM’s bribe-an-Android-developer program, I have just completed the process of repackaging a couple of Android apps and submitting them to Blackberry App World. This was my first experience of publishing on a Blackberry platform. Previously I had been scared off by horror stories of the pain involved.

The first step was to become a registered Blackberry App World Vendor. This involved e-mailing some documents to RIM to prove that my company actually exists (if you are selling apps as an individual you have to provide proof of your own identity). I submitted the documents on Friday and was approved by Tuesday, which is not too bad considering that they were probably processing a much larger volume of applications than usual due to the free PlayBook offer. It was not as straightforward as signing up for Android Market or the Amazon App Store but it was a lot quicker than the 3 weeks it took Apple to process my application for the iTunes App Store.

The process of acquiring a code-signing certificate involves submitting another form and waiting an hour or two for a pair of e-mails containing a RIM Development Key (RDK) and a PlayBook Debug Token (PBDT). It took me two attempts at this to get both as the first time only the RDK arrived. Once you have the necessary files you then have to use the tools provided to register with RIM and create a developer certificate. This degree of cryptographic hoop-jumping is beyond that required by Google or Amazon and more comparable to Apple’s Provisioning Profile rituals (except much slower due to the waiting around). The whole process is unnecessarily convoluted.

When you’re ready to convert your Android app you’ll want to install the PlayBook simulator so that you can test it. The simulator is provided as a VMWare machine image wrapped up in an installer that is only available as a .exe (for Windows) or .dmg (for OS X). If you develop on Windows this is fine, you can use the free VMWare Player. RIM doesn’t seem to encourage development on Linux but if you can extract the files from the installer you can run the simulator using the free VMWare Player for Linux. The situation on OS X is less satisfactory. There is no free VMWare Player so you’d have to buy VMWare Fusion (£39.99). I was unable to get VirtualBox to boot the image. The simulator also has a major limitation in that it is not possible to change the device orientation, which is less than ideal for testing.

Finally it’s time to convert your app. Firstly you need to make sure it doesn’t use any of the many Android features that are not currently supported by the Blackberry Android app player. There is a verifier tool that will check your .apk and warn you of any problems. You can then convert the .apk into a .bar file, which is a simple one-step process.

Load this .bar onto the simulator, launch your app and then feel the disappointment really kick-in. On the simulator (on my laptop at least, under both Windows and Linux) the experience is abysmal. The apps flicker very badly with artifacts from the previous activity frequently appearing on top of the current activity. On top of this, font rendering is atrocious. Getting useful screenshots for uploading to App World is just about impossible.

I tried multiple Android apps and I know others have experienced similar problems with their apps. I can only hope that it is specific to the simulator and is not a problem on the actual hardware. If not, it needs to be fixed in the final Blackberry Tablet OS 2.0 release otherwise there is absolutely no point in repackaging your Android apps since they will be unusable.

Ignoring the app’s performance on the simulator, the final step is to sign the .bar file and upload it to App World. Signing is straightforward. Submitting the app is not too much different to other app stores. Bizarrely App World restricts screenshots to a maximum of 640×640 pixels (the PlayBook’s screen is 1024×600 so you have to reduce the size). As with Android Market, you are required to upload a feature graphic, although in this case it needs to be a massive 1920×1186 pixels. If you are selling paid apps you don’t have the pricing freedom that Android Market provides. Instead you have to pick from one of the pre-defined price points, just as on iTunes.

I’d be more enthusiastic about Android apps on Blackberry devices if it weren’t for the simulator glitches. As it stands I’ll have to wait until I get my hands on the hardware to judge just how worthwhile it is for Android developers to deploy to non-Android platforms.