I’ve blogged about building native mobile device applications using a Web technology-based framework such as PhoneGap from Nitobi in the past. When I first wrote about the open source PhoneGap project in March 2009 I concluded: “If I worked at RIM, I’d take a trip out to Vancouver to talk to the Nitobi dudes. This framework is exactly what RIM needs to counter the trend of developers targeting the iPhone/iPod as the premier environment for mobile device applications”.

Fast forward seven months and RIM announces a beta of the BlackBerry Widget SDK that:

“allows web developers to package up their web assets into BlackBerry Widgets (small, discrete, standalone web applications that use HTML, CSS and JavaScript). A BlackBerry Widget looks, behaves and has the same security mechanisms as a native BlackBerry application. BlackBerry Widgets can be installed on a BlackBerry smartphone like any native application and can be extended to use device-specific information and data using the BlackBerry Widget APIs.”

Wow, sounds like an enhanced PhoneGap tuned for BlackBerry applications. With fingers crossed I pinged Andre & Dave to ask if RIM was using PhoneGap for this SDK. I’d scoured the BlackBerry Widget SDK website and knew the answer before Dave and Andre replied “nope”.

This was absolutely a missed opportunity for RIM to compete versus Apple, Palm and others using open source. No, I’m not going to suggest that RIM open source the BlackBerry Enterprise Server; that would be silly. Rather, I believe RIM could have saved R&D costs, increased the value of its BlackBerry platform and influenced developers building for the iPhone if RIM had built the Widget SDK on top of the open source project like PhoneGap.

RIM should be utilizing R&D investments more effectively by leveraging exiting open source projects. RIM could have built this SDK for a lower investment by staring with PhoneGap, or another equivalent open source framework. Of course there might have been a feature gap between what PhoneGap offers and what RIM wanted to deliver in version 1.0. However, assigning RIM developers to the PhoneGap project to add these features whilst leveraging all the other APIs in PhoneGap would have saved RIM the work of reinventing the wheel for those other APIs.

RIM would have also benefited from new features added by the PhoneGap community. A PhoneGap community member who loves his BlackBerry and wants to “scratch an itch” could contribute a PhoneGap feature that other BlackBerry developers would find extremely useful.

Finally, RIM would be contributing to a framework that developers are already using to develop iPhone applications. RIM needs to figure out a way to entice developers to build BlackBerry applications before iPhone applications. However, RIM should also be working to get developers to port their iPhone apps to the BlackBerry platform. As a PhoneGap contributor, RIM could offer a simple and painless porting option for existing and new PhoneGap-based iPhone applications.

I could come up with additional benefits for RIM, but these three are big enough for RIM to reconsider its strategy for delivering the Widget SDK. RIM could yet contribute all or part of their Widget SDK to an established mobile framework open source community and build its Widget SDK product from the resulting open source community code.

I suggest this strategy because I’ve witnessed IBM using it with great success. In the WebSphere division, we contribute to countless open source projects, including the Apache HTTPD, Dojo Toolkit and Eclipse Equinox projects. We then utilize code from these projects with IBM enhancements inside of WebSphere Application Server. This strategy allows us to, with less, do more.

I hope friends at RIM can learn a lesson from IBM’s use of open source for competitive differentiation. With Dion & Ben at Palm, you can bet that Palm is thinking about using open source more effectively within its strategy.

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PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”