Friday, October 21, 2011

RIM's strategy to lure PlayBook app developers via Android

Research in Motion (RIM) first announced development of a tablet device, the PlayBook, at their 2010 Developer's Conference (DevCon), in September last year. At the time, RIM positioned the device as "Professional Grade", based on the QNX operating system from the company which they acquired earlier that year.

RIM was then slow to get the tablet in the hands of application developers, though they held a "Meet the PlayBook" event specifically targeting that community in December 2010, where attendees weren't allowed to touch the device and only controlled demos were shown on-stage.

At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, RIM still kept the PlayBook under glass at a pre-show press event, before finally unveiling it with much fanfare on the show floor. RIM also then announced that the PlayBook would be available not only in a WiFi version, but also in a WiMAX version for the Sprint 4G network. A month later, at the Mobile World Congress, RIM announced LTE and HSPA+ versions, devices which were planned for availability in the second half of 2011. None of those devices have reached the market to date, and in August Sprint dropped plans to carry a 4G version on their network. The $500 16GB 7" device is still listed as available at RadioShack, but is poorly positioned to compete alongside other 7" tablets from companies such as Samsung and HTC, which offer more features (and apps) at a lower price, let alone the market-leading iPad-2 at the same price.

Nevertheless, at the just-completed 2011 Blackberry DevCon, RIM prominently featured the PlayBook as a centerpiece of their strategy during the opening keynote presentations. Each attendee was given their choice of a free Playbook, either the production version or an identical device pre-loaded with the 2.0 beta version of the PlayBook OS. The most significant feature of the next version of the PlayBook OS is that it will incorporate a runtime player for Android applications. During a press conference review of PlayBook Android strategy, company representatives emphasized how easy it is to port Android apps, and that they hoped once developers saw this they would be enticed to develop native versions for the PlayBook.

How the Runtime Android Player Works

Version 2.0 of the RIM PlayBook OS will include a runtime player for Android applications.
A comparison of the PlayBook software stack (above) looks almost identical to the Google software stack (below). Since Android is available through an open-source distribution, what RIM has been able to do is to basically repackage Android on top of the QNX kernel, rather than open source Linux, keeping most of the library components and replacing (or augmenting) those that might be incompatible. With the commonality of a Linux foundation, it is - at least on the surface - pretty straightforward to see how Android apps can quickly be ported over. In the PlayBook OS, Android apps will be able to run as a secure BlackBerry PlayBook app.

The Android open source software stack is built on a Linux kernel.

There are, of course, limitations.  Perhaps most significantly, this approach precludes the use of Honeycomb tablet apps, because Google has not completely open-sourced that version of the Android OS. The latest version that RIM can use is version 2.3 series Gingerbread. So, while a growing list of companies have launched Honeycomb tablets, RIM is starting out at least one step behind. Now, with the introduction of Android version 4.0 - Ice Cream Sandwich - the same week, RIM is likely to fall even further behind.

Technical Limitations

During the 2011 DevCon developer sessions on the Android runtime engine, presenters described the key unsupported items:
  • Native code.
  • Add-on Google libraries e.g. Google Maps, Cloud to Device Messaging (C2DM), etc.
  • You can invoke the native Camera app to capture a picture for inclusion in your app via android.provider.Mediastore.ACTION_IMAGE_CAPTURE. 
  • However, android.hardware.Camera APIs are not supported.
  • No Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Voice over IP (VoIP) or Bluetooth.
  • No home screen = no widgets.
  • Apps must have no launch-able activities.
  • Two APKs can’t run in the same process.
  • No Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP).
  • Application icon must be re-sized to 86x86.
RIM says that a majority, approximately 65%, of Gingerbread Android apps have successfully ported without requiring a change in source code. The company is hoping that their more successful payment model will be enough to entice developers to go through the effort. 

The much greater problem is drawing consumers to a device that, one year after introduction, has many more formidable competitors. Android tablet manufacturers are taking full advantage of later versions of the operating system, and they offer more advanced features at much lower prices. RIM also lacks a 3G or 4G version, and has no wireless carrier support. It is inevitable that, much like HP with the Palm OS, RIM will eventually come to realize an incomplete ecosystem is an insurmountable problem. Until and unless they address those issues, the PlayBook will just be another orphan device, Android or no Android support.

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