With nearly all of the momentum in the mobile world gathering around Apple and Android heading into 2011, BlackBerry has looked like it was headed for another rough year of market share losses and falling further behind in product innovation. If there was any mobile platform in desperate need of a bold move, it was BlackBerry.
Well, it looks like there could be a bold move in the works. According to a report in BGR, Research in Motion (the company behind the BlackBerry) is "seriously considering" a move in which its next-generation operating system QNX (pronounced "que-nix") would run Android apps. Remember, the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet will be running QNX and RIM has said that it will eventually use QNX on its smartphones as well.
Here is BGR reported about the possibility of Android apps:
"We have been told by multiple trusted sources that RIM is seriously considering a feature that will allow BlackBerry devices to run Android apps. Here is what we know: Research In Motion has been trying to figure out the path it wants to take as far as how the existing Java environment will work on its upcoming QNX tablet and smartphones. The company has publicly stated that it is looking at getting a Java virtual machine running on the PlayBook - not so much for app development going forward, but for legacy support, custom apps corporations have deployed and don't want to recreate, etc... We have been told RIM is very much considering the Dalvik virtual machine, and we ultimately expect the company to chose Dalvik. If that sounds familiar to you, it's because it's the same VM that the Android OS uses, and it would allow RIM's PlayBook and other QNX devices to run just about any application built for the Android platform."
This makes sense from a technical standpoint since both the legacy BlackBerry OS and Android are built on Java. Since QNX is a completely new platform based on software from a company that RIM acquired, they would have to run an emulator (virtualization) in order to be backward compatible and run existing BlackBerry applications. While they're working on that, it's not much of a stretch to also do an emulator for Android as well, since both platforms have a similar Java foundation.
Because Android is open source, RIM can use it and adapt it for whatever uses it sees fit. However, the bigger play would obviously be to partner with Google and bring the official Android Market to the BlackBerry QNX platform. It would have to co-exist alongside BlackBerry App World — and they'd both have to be comfortable with that — but it could give both companies something they need. BlackBerry desperately needs a better catalog of third party apps and Google needs more Android Market customers who are willing to purchase apps in order to keep developers happy.
It would seem like a coup if BlackBerry could put off something like this. If the report is true — and it's consistent with some things I've heard about what's going on behind the scenes at RIM — then it's nice to see this kind of boldness from RIM in trying to re-invigorate the BlackBerry platform. A BlackBerry device running QNX, a dual core processor, and the Android Market would be infinitely more appealing than anything in the current lineup of BlackBerry smartphones.
That said, this move may not be the slam dunk that so many people in the technology industry seem ready to declare. It is fraught with a number of drawbacks and challenges, including the following:
- If RIM brings Android apps to BlackBerry, it would essentially be like waving the white flag and admitting it has lost the war for developers in the mobile world. And, if Android apps became more popular than BlackBerry apps then RIM would be handing over a huge chunk of potential revenue — its cut of apps sales — to Google.
- This move would would also tether BlackBerry's fortunes to Android in some potentially uncomfortable ways. What if Google later changed its mind and decided to pull Android Market support from BlackBerry? What if developers get tired of not selling enough apps on Android and shift in larger numbers toward the more lucrative Apple App Store? At that point, RIM would wish it had gone it alone with its own app platform.
- Integrating the Android Market and making Android apps play well on BlackBerry QNX devices will need some UI magic, and BlackBerry hasn't shown itself to be very good at UI. Maybe TAT, the UI company it recently acquired, can help.
- Although the QNX-based PlayBook is coming to market in Q1 2011, remember that QNX smartphones are at least 9-12 months away. That's a lot of time for BlackBerry to continue to lose ground in the smartphone market, and once that trend accelerates it will be difficult to turn around.
- Above all, a tie-up with Android would likely relegate BlackBerry to second-tier status in the mobile market. As a second-tier player, it could make a nice profit and be a niche provider, but companies that were once the alpha dog tend not to like being relegated to second-tier status and usually make increasingly less pragmatic and more desperate moves to try to recapture the old glory.
Of course, without adding the Android Market, the prospects for BlackBerry look even worse. We can't forget that either.
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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.