RIM has spent a lot of time and effort appealing to consumers — putting touch-screens on devices, and letting apps like games and media players integrate with its secure peer-to-peer BlackBerry Messenger, for example. We've heard a lot about the rich WebKit browser and the way OpenGL will make the company's new dual-core PlayBook tablet 'an incredible gaming platform' while the graphics processor will hardware-accelerate HTML 5 and Flash videos. But what about the business features? RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis announced the PlayBook on 27 September as "the world's first professional tablet", calling it "BlackBerry amplified" with a "professional operating system". So what exactly will enterprises get?
The BlackBerry PlayBook offers a mix of consumer and enterprise features
QNX certainly has a respected position in the embedded market for its real-time operating system, which powers everything from nuclear control systems to the core Cisco routers at the heart of the internet. The Neutrino micro-kernel has POSIX, FDA, ISO9001, EAL4 Common Criteria and SIL3 certifications, and while you can run your existing HTML 5, AIR and BlackBerry apps (on the PlayBook's Java runtime, which will have all but perhaps the most recent BlackBerry APIs), the POSIX compliance means there's an alternative. Like the "tens of thousands of open-source Linux packages available written in C and C++", if they run on Linux or Mac OS X, then your enterprise's custom line-of-business apps will be easy to port to Neutrino for the PlayBook, points out Dan Dodge, president of QNX software systems at RIM.
"We were working with Adobe on the Flash 10.1 player and they said 'give yourselves six months to do a port, minimum'. I asked them, 'Don't you have a POSIX version? We'll do it in five days'. It took us six, with the debugging and optimisations", says Dodge. "Or the Apache web server; you take it over to QNX and drop it down and it just works." QNX's Momentics IDE (which is built on Eclipse) includes a lot of tools to help you optimise your code; you can choose between parallelising apps to improve performance or running on one core to improve battery life. Although RIM hasn't announced a battery life estimate for the PlayBook and Dodge wouldn't comment, he did tell ZDNet that he knows what the battery life will be like and that "you shouldn't worry".
QNX's distributed architecture
A unique feature of QNX is that one QNX device can access another remotely, and treat its resources as if they were part of the same system. This goes far beyond mounting a remote file store or mapping it to a drive letter: as long as it has the right permissions, one device can access files stored on another QNX system by sending a packet containing an open command directly to the micro-kernel. "You end up with an architecture that is incredibly distributed", explains Dodge. This won't work between BlackBerries and the PlayBook until the handsets shift to a JVM based on QNZ as well, but it will work between PlayBooks.
The PlayBook's QNX operating system uses a highly distributed architecture, allowing devices (with the right permissions) to communicate at the micro-kernel level
"Imagine this architecture with multiple PlayBooks, and the ability to have gaming or various types of communications in a way that's seamless. And we do all this reliably", says Dodge. "We call it 'plumbing' — we do all the plumbing for you; you don't need to worry about it. In fact, we do discovery as well. If you have multiple PlayBooks in the home on a home network they will discover each other and you can build applications to use that. This is a pretty exciting new area and we will be investigating how we can roll it out and make it something that is valuable and meaningful to the developer."
The PlayBook is also a multi-user device by design, says Dodge. "It actually has two identities present: one will be your corporate identity and it knows about the phone, it knows about security, it knows what you need to encrypt when anything comes across the Bluetooth link. If your password times out, if you're running corporate apps they will all have locked screens so you won't be able to see them. But your consumer apps, your YouTube or your browser — they'll all stay live. So your consumer experience can continue to function while your corporate one can come and go, based on the IT policy at your company."
Several users will eventually be able to share the same PlayBook, so you can take your tablet to work and still share it safely with the family. "We're not going to have this at launch", says Dodge, "but all the file structures and everything [required] is in place, where you'll be able to give the tablet to your daughter or your son and they will actually get to create their own identity. And when they sign on they will have sandboxes for their apps; they will have their own shared areas for them, but there will be another hierarchy, a hierarchy that's shared across the entire tablet in case you want to share some stuff among yourselves."
Dodge believes that one of the reasons the PlayBook will succeed is this balancing act: "We're trying to realise that corporate individuals are also consumers and people who like to play."
Other notable QNX features are memory protection (with each program running in its own process, scheduled independently of other processes), file and device permissions that restrict every app to its own sandbox unless it's explicitly using shared storage ("even if your app is malicious and wants to look at other sandboxes the OS will deny that", says Dodge) and adaptive CPU partitioning that guarantees that apps get enough processing power even when the system is overloaded.
With 1GB of RAM in the PlayBook, Dodge suggests that "if you wanted to run 40 apps at once, memory might be getting a little tight". Several things help with that, though: "We do context switches between processes in fractions of microseconds", says Dodge, and using larger memory pages improves processor performance by anything from 10 to 30 percent. As system resources get low, this prompts garbage collection.
"In the worst case, the memory launcher will just kill you", says Dodge. "It sounds bad, but we'll ask you that you checkpoint your state [to allow a restart]. You'll be the last guy that was run the least. When we push an app into the background, it's not frozen, although the amount of CPU [you get] will go down because we don't want to burn the battery. You should save your state in case this situation happens — which on this 1GB tablet will not happen often."
At the launch event, Mike Lazaridis credited enterprise buyers as wanting the industry-standard HDMI port, "so they can plug into projectors". The PlayBook will be able to show one thing on its own screen and another through the HDMI connection. "The obvious use case for that is I'm doing a presentation and I want that on the HDMI output and I want my notes on-screen", explains Dodge. As well as accessing data on USB devices, the PlayBook supports Wi-Fi file systems, both NFA and CIF/SMB — and QNX's own remote, distributed resources.