BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 Android support: A work in progress

The PlayBook's Android Player in the 2.0 developer release is functional, but it still needs a bit of work and applications will have to be adapted to run smoothly.

Last week, Research in Motion released the PlayBook 2.0 Developer Preview, which is primarily targeted towards software developers looking to test their pre-baked Android applications on the new Android Player.

Also Read: RIM's Juggling Act Flops as PlayBook 2.0 Slips

While PlayBook 2.0 is considerably behind schedule -- as the Developer Preview does not contain the much-desired native email and calendaring support and is not expected to be released to the public until sometime in February, RIM has made a great deal of progress in terms of improving overall performance and usability of the Android support in the QNX Tablet OS than from previous versions leaked unofficially on the Internet.

Once a PlayBook is registered with its unique PIN on the RIM developer site, the tablet is sent an over-the-air update that includes the new Android Player support. The new PlayBook 2.0 improvements are primarily skin-deep, although there are some minor aesthetic differences.

Eventually, Android applications will be installable from the BlackBerry App World just like any regular PlayBook application, whether it is native QNX, Adobe Air 3.0 or WebWorks-based.

But for the time being, developers have to "side-load" re-packaged Android applications in PlayBook-compatible format, called .BAR files. BAR files are unique to the BlackBerry App World and are parsed differently than the APK format used by native Android devices.

Side-loading of BAR files requires the installation of the Adobe AIR SDK as well as the BlackBerry Tablet OS SDK for Adobe AIR, enabling developer mode on the tablet, and uploading the files via a USB connection using command-line tools.

Research in Motion has provided a web-based tool to re-package Android files into BAR for submission to the new BlackBerry App World, which includes a Java application to help test for compatibility.

If the requirements haven't scared you off -- as well as having to run a fairly unstable environment on your PlayBook, the good folks at CrackBerry.com have begun to maintain a Google Docs spreadsheet of where you can download some pre-packaged BAR files for testing and what Android apps do and do not work yet.

It should be noted that not every Android application is expected to work on the Player. Android NDK apps that use C and C++ libraries will not function -- only apps that are written specifically to the Android Gingerbread 2.3.x implementation of the Dalvik VM will run.

And because the Player has to emulate a native Android handset's hardware buttons through software touch gestures, it's possible some optimization of these existing applications will be required.

Other limitations of the Player, which otherwise behaves exactly like a vanilla install Android 2.3.3, include no support for Account Synchronization settings, so apps like GMail or Google Calendar will not work.

However, I was able to find several 3rd-party email clients that were able to replace GMail, such as Kaiten and K-9, both of which are excellent programs.

Additionally, RIM has enabled a security mode that disables support for APK application side-loading, obviously so that their own BlackBerry App Store monetization cannot be bypassed by say, Amazon or even Google.

However, even with these limitations, a large library of Android apps should become available soon for the PlayBook, and overall that is a good thing. Overall I was extremely impressed with the Android application performance, especially for multimedia-intensive apps.

Have you tested the PlayBook 2.0 Android Player yet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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