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Ten Questions about Android on the BlackBerry PlayBook

[This piece appeared in the gdgt weekly newsletter. Subscribe to it here: gdgt.com­/newsletter ]

Last week started off with a big bombshell -- AT&T's announcement of its plans to buy T-Mobile -- and ended with the confirmation of a long-standing rumor that RIM would be bringing support for Android apps to its PlayBook tablet. It's a bold move on their part, but it raises a whole bunch of questions, not just about how it'll be implemented, but what it also means for RIM's long-term strategy. Here are a few I have:

1. How well will Android apps run on the PlayBook? The assumption is that since Android apps would be running in a virtual machine that performance will be worse than on a proper Android device, but this doesn't necessarily need to be case, as technically Android apps run in a virtual machine even in Android itself. The PlayBook, with its 1GHz dual core processor and 1GB of RAM, certainly has enough power, but what matters is how well RIM is able to optimize its Android app player. It will really come down to how well its engineers are able to fine tune things. I'm prepared to give RIM the benefit of the doubt here and assume that most apps will run pretty well.

2. When exactly will the Android app player be available? RIM wouldn't get more specific than "this summer," but the sooner the better. It's hard to tell for how many people Android support is a must-have feature -- my guess is that most people who are planning on buying a PlayBook were going to do so before this was announced -- but I don't doubt that it's gotten at least some people to consider buying one and you really don't want to wait too long to capitalize on that interest.

3. How hard will it be to get an app approved? In the announcement, RIM said that "developers will simply repackage, code sign and submit their BlackBerry Java and Android apps to BlackBerry App World." Will the process be any different than it currently is for BlackBerry App World? Will Android apps have any specific requirements that native apps won't have?

4. Will RIM bring support for Android apps to BlackBerry phones? RIM hasn't given any indication either way, but since QNX is eventually coming to BlackBerry phones as well, it stands to reason that they'll also get some sort of Android app player. I'd be surprised if they didn't, actually.

5. Will RIM be able to roll out new versions of its Android "app player" quickly enough to take advantage of new versions of the OS? It's plenty frustrating to own a phone stuck on an earlier version of Android when Google introduces a new version, and if RIM doesn't prioritize updating its Android app player to support the latest version they risk frustrating plenty of users who don't want to wait for the latest and greatest. It won't look good if the PlayBook is stuck on Android 2.3 for six months after the OS has moved on to 2.4 or 2.5.

6. Speaking of all that, is supporting Android 2.3, but not 3.0, going to be an issue? The PlayBook's Android app player will support apps that are compatible with Android 2.3, but not with Honeycomb, even though Honeycomb apps -- at least the few that are out there! -- are designed specifically for the tablet form factor. Now, given that Google has yet to release the source code for Android 3.0, this isn't exactly under RIM's control, but subtleties like that might get lost on users who see new apps coming out for Honeycomb tablets that they can't run on their PlayBook. Keep in mind that one of the biggest complaints about tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which runs on a smartphone version of Android, is that relatively few of the apps are optimized for its larger screen (which is incidentally the same size as that of the PlayBook), and I suspect we'll hear some similar grumbling about how few Android 2.3 apps take advantage of the PlayBook's screen size. Compatibility with 3.0 surely has to be a priority for RIM. If you're going to go to the trouble of bringing Android app compatibility to your tablet, you definitely want to support the version designed specifically for tablets.

7. How will RIM get developers to create native apps for QNX? With some developers already complaining about how much harder it is to develop for QNX than iOS or Android, you have to wonder whether last week's announcement will mean even fewer developers bothering to code a native version of their app in C or C++ when they can simply port over their Android version. Presumably native apps would run more smoothly and/or be able to hook into APIs not available to sandboxed Android apps, but apart from games (which undoubtedly will run better as native apps), will the differences be substantial enough for most developers to go to the trouble? If the userbase for the PlayBook just isn't large enough to justify the additional time and expense, we might not see large numbers of native apps on the PlayBook. RIM's challenge is to convince mobile developers to care.

8. If support for Android apps is really that important to someone, why should they pick a PlayBook over the alternatives? This is a big question, and one RIM needs to have a very clear answer for. The advantages of supporting Android apps are obvious -- users potentially gain access to an existing library of hundreds of thousands of apps -- but RIM also needs to make a case for why they're using QNX in the first place and not just going all the way and making an Android tablet. It creates an interesting opportunity for RIM, since they can argue that with the PlayBook you get access to all the Android apps a user might care about plus you get all the stuff that's good about the PlayBook -- but the key part is making a case for what's special about the PlayBook.

I've played with the PlayBook, and all in all it's a nice device. It's speedy, has a nice screen, and the UI is generally well-thought out (I also happen to be a fan of the 7-inch screen size). But those in and of themselves won't be enough to make the PlayBook successful. It's critical that RIM define the experiences that it will enable and very clearly articulate what it is that differentiates it from everything else out there (this is critical for every tablet out there). Calling the PlayBook "the world's first professional-grade tablet" isn't bad, but if they're going to go down that road they need to make sure they have the apps and experiences to back that up.

One feature of the PlayBook that RIM is playing up as being perfect for business users is its ability to access email, calendar, and contacts apps stored on a BlackBerry. (In fact, pairing with a BlackBerry will be the only way to use those apps on a PlayBook, at least initially.) However, I think they're overestimating how much people will care about this, they should position the PlayBook's bridge mode as a bonus feature, not a requirement to take full advantage of your tablet. Not offering native email, contacts, and calendar apps at launch (RIM says they will offer them at some later point), won't just be confusing for a lot of people, it also unnecessarily limits the pool of potential PlayBook buyers to mainly BlackBerry users.

9. Is RIM in this for the long-haul? Is Android support just a stop-gap measure to fill out what will be a paltry app catalog while they hope that developers latch on to QNX? Or are they committing themselves to supporting Android (and all its future versions) indefinitely? Hard to see them pulling support in a couple of years, since it would surely piss off users who will have gotten used to having all those Android apps on their device, but there may be a point where RIM decides that the costs outweigh the benefits and they phase out Android support.

10. Will it make a difference? The scary thing for RIM is that having a good or even marginally better product won't be enough without the app library to back it up, which is presumably why they've doing this in the first place. Will it make a enough of a difference in unit sales to help launch the PlayBook and QNX? It'll be very interesting to see if there's a spike in PlayBook sales around the time of the introduction of the Android app manager.

So what are your questions or thoughts?

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5 replies

Differentiation is the key here. Thanks to gdgt in Austin, the RIM staff demo'd the playbook to me, but all they could talk about was Flash support, that's just not enough. The Android feature is about removing barriers but that only works if people want to buy your product in the first place. Imagine if Apple had tried to enter the market with a traditional candy bar T9 phone which simply connected to iTunes. The iPhone would be nowhere now. To break into a market with established players, you need a game changing product. Unfortunately this is a subset product - they'll sell it to a subset of Blackberry owners.
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I don't think many developers will bother repackaging, signing and submitting apps for the playbook. And I don't think the process will be simple either. I don't like posting negative comments but I'm very skeptical about this. RIM would be much better off adopting Android altogether instead of trying to run it's apps on a VM.
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I've been impressed with the demo videos that show Need for Speed playing on the device while an HD movie is played on an external monitor via HDMI out. And RIM is supporting many development environments on this device (AIR, Flash, WebWorks, Android, BlackBerry Java, QNX), devs have many choices (maybe too many). I too am interested what access the Android and BBOS "App Players" will have to the device (storage connectivity), and the other apps (will they share sandboxes?).
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My gut feeling is that the Playbook is too little too late. There's gonna be a glut inventory of unsold Playbooks and it's gonna go down the same merry path as the Palm Pre. Don't get me wrong - the Blackberry platform is the GOLD STANDARD of corporate email functionality and security (no government has complained about the iPhone being too secure as far as I know). All things being equal I predict in 12 months the Playbook will be another historical curiosity. RIM should focus on their Blackberry platform and if anything, should have followed Apple's paradigm and made the Playbook a "jumbo sized Blackberry" instead of this wierd bluetooth tethered rig. If I was a RIM shareholder I'd be dumping my stock and buying it back after the big dip. Disclosure: I'm a biased Canadian citizen and I'd dearly love to see RIM eat an apple but it's not in the fates....
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I think you're missing question 11. Who are the primary audiences for this hardware and what do they need? The answer is that, while consumers are one audience, they are not the only one. RIM is working with corporate partners to make the Playbook work in secure applications such as healthcare where they can leverage their security infrastructure. Perhaps that is what they've optimized QNX for.

Adding Android support allows RIM to play in the consumer space while being able to optimize the native app environment for secure applications. Hence, the first professional tablet.
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