Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

When Apple introduced the iPad, it had but a smattering of third-party applications, but the company stressed its own. As Apple iPhone software SVP Scott Forstall stated in the iPad introduction video, "We looked at the device and we decided: let's redesign it all. Let's redesign, reimagine and rebuild every single app from the ground up specifically for the iPad."

Compare this to the strategy employed by RIM, makers of the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. One year after the iPad's debut, Apple's head start in apps has proven a formidable advantage against the onslaught of slates announced by its competitors in the smartphone world. Some have chosen to latch onto Android and attain backwards compatibility with over 200,000 existing smartphone apps. HP, with its TouchPad as flagship, will circle its wagons of PCs, printers and phones around the webOS platform. However, the announcement this week that RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook will support Android apps says much about how the company sees its position in the tablet wars.

C and C++ are the native routes to app development on RIM's long-gestated tablet, but they certainly not the only ways. Flash / Adobe AIR and HTML5 will also be supported as will several popular game engines. Android and Java apps will be accommodated with add-on players and distributed via RIM's App World, RIM's app marketplace. The ability to run Android apps without the underlying Android operating system certainly helps bring a degree of cachet as well as functionality. At a discussion with an executive from a downmarket carrier at the CTIA Wireless show in Orlando last week, I asked what customers are asking for as they adopt smartphones. His response: "Android. Android is the brand. They want the apps."

Android support could serve as a sideshow that gives developers less reason to natively support the platform.

But support for Android could also have some potential downsides. With the BlackBerry OS platform generally taking a backseat to other smartphone platforms and a major platform shift to QNX in the works, Android support could serve as a sideshow that gives Android developers even less reason to natively support the platform. Android apps are also unlikely to exploit the PlayBook hardware and user interface, both of which have generated consumer excitement on their own merits. Contrast this with Apple's attempt to optimize the iOS app experience to the point where it sought to block third-party development tools because of concern about cross-platform apps that might pander to the lowest common denominator.

Controlling the software platform may not be as vital to RIM as it is to Apple or others, but it's still an important priority in which RIM is heavily investing. RIM's challenge will be weaving the PlayBook's hodgepodge of sources into a tapestry of engaging functionality. Apple may prioritize a consistently crafted experience but RIM is about delivering what works to encourage adoption and development. The key is ensuring that Android apps remain more or less an option of last resort, while the company can build the case for QNX apps that showcase and differentiate the PlayBook from competitors in the tablet space, and to help the company make a case for the same operating system to power future smartphones.


Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.