What's behind RIM's quest for Android apps on the PlayBook?

If it's true RIM wants to get Android apps on its PlayBook tablet, what does that mean for the future of the BlackBerry?

Yesterday, ITWorld reported on a rumor that RIM might actually be looking to support running Android apps on its forthcoming PlayBook tablet. That's a pretty shocking possibility. Perhaps even more shocking is that the rumor (originally posted by Boy Genius Report) contends that RIM hasn't even chose a Java VM (virtual machine) for the device.

Allegedly, RIM is looking at a Java VM that could be used to run legacy apps, particularly for corporate clients that may not want to rewrite an existing BlackBerry solution for the PlayBook or future BlackBerry handsets (RIM eventually plans to migrate all its devices to the QNX OS that powers the PlayBook). The company is reported to be looking at the same open source Dalvik VM that Google uses in Android. That means that it should be possible to run Android apps on the PlayBook.

What isn't clear is how RIM will make all this happen. Dalvik is open source, so RIM could theoretically use it without Google's approval or involvement. However, the company could also partner with Google to essentially have the PlayBook and future BlackBerry models certified for use with Android. That would open up more than just the ability to run apps since the partnership could include pre-loading of specific apps on the PlayBook including those designed to access specific Google services (GMail or Google Calendar, for example).

ITWorld's Josh Fruhlinger pointed out yesterday, this could cause headaches for BlackBerry/PlayBook app developers because of the differing Java editions used by the traditional BlackBerry OS and Android (and potentially the PlayBook). Even if the underlying code doesn't require a lot of tweaking to get BlackBerry apps running on the PlayBook, there's the matter of changes to the development environment that could be problematic. There's also the fact that smartphone apps don't look good on tablets unless their UI is updated to support the added screen real estate and other tablet-specific features (an issue Google had to address in Android with Honeycomb).

Those might be reasons for RIM to consider making the PlayBook compatible with Android apps. Android has a bigger base of developers and a wide selection of existing apps. If developers are hesitant to jump on board creating apps for the PlayBook, looking to get another platform's apps on the device could be one solution. At the same time, it diminishes the interest of any developer to create PlayBook-specific titles.

It could also be a way for RIM to largely sidestep the app question altogether. I've been critical of RIM's emphasis of using the PlayBook's browser over dedicated apps. If the company really does want to go with such a bold web focus, this could be a way to do that but also still court users who want a more app-focused device.

Of course, for IT this could make the PlayBook difficult to manage. Android is among the weakest mobile platforms from a mobile management perspective – in part because there's less uniformity across devices and carriers. The PlayBook is already a management challenge because it only offers full enterprise access/management when tethered to a BlackBerry. Add apps from another platform running on top of that situation and you're bound to have issues across the spectrum of IT tasks (provisioning software and settings, security and access restrictions, end-user training and support, etc.) that need to be handled with any mobile device.

Ultimately, if this turns out to be true and RIM does go down this path, it brings up other questions about RIM's strategy and goals. Is the company going to become just another Android device manufacturer? What legacy support will there be in future BlackBerry handsets? Is the company going to focus on its core enterprise customers or is it going will it expand to target more of the consumer market? How much faith can IT managers and CIOs really afford to place in RIM's product road map when making decisions for the next one, five, or even ten years?

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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