RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

Summary: RIM's big plan for its PlayBook depends on Android compatibility, but it's unclear whether the company can be nimble enough to keep up with new builds.

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RIM's big plan for its PlayBook depends on Android compatibility, but it's unclear whether the company can be nimble enough to keep up with new builds.

So the BlackBerry PlayBook has now finally arrived.

Also Read: iPad 2 Versus BlackBerry PlayBook: Of course you realize, this means war.

Last week, while I was on vacation in Las Vegas watching David Copperfield, drinking copious amounts of liquor and being convinced in my altered state to watch female impersonators, a slew of BlackBerry PlayBook reviews came out from the usual consumer-oriented technology writers.

Apparently, they were all released in a rushed and ill-timed fashion because some little jackass decided to either violate a embargo or somehow got their hands on a leaked device in advance of the embargo and official reviewer device pool, but I digress.

[Note to RIM for future reference: You might want to reconsider your working relationship with New Media outlets that make their living out of leaking your materials using coerced staff and which burn you on a continual basis. Just a thought.]

My own evaluation PlayBook arrived today and I've barely gotten a chance to play with it. Because I believe in producing original material and a unique perspective on the device I'm not going to re-hash the thorough and professional write-ups from folks like David Pogue, Walt Mossberg and Joshua Topolsky, all of which followed a very similar theme, evaluation methodology and came to nearly identical conclusions.

The result? According to the privileged pre-release review digerati, RIM's PlayBook hardware and QNX tablet OS is solid and has all the raw technology mojo to make an excellent tablet, but is currently missing built-in email, contact management and calendaring functionality unless the device is paired with a RIM smartphone using the "BlackBerry Bridge".

That missing functionality is due to come out sometime during the late summer with an OS software update. In the meantime, if you want to get to your GMail or Google Calendar or other cloud-based email service sans BlackBerry, you'll need to use the web browser interface.

Now that being said, I should probably mention that not a single review that I have read from the above mentioned authors or any of the others I have seen on the Internet from the usual New Media bloggerati suspects has been written from the perspective of an actual technologist working in enterprise environments, which is the target demographic the PlayBook is made for.

This is roughly analogous to Consumer Reports or Car and Driver doing a 100 point evaluation of the M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank and criticizing it for lacking sufficient cupholders and getting crappy gas mileage.

So while I agree with these gadgety-consumerist writers that the PlayBook has a number of shortcomings that might dissuade a consumer from giving the device serious consideration compared to the iPad or an Android tablet, it's probably a bit early to spell gloom and doom for the PlayBook.

We just haven't seen any of the type of enterprise-oriented exploitive apps that the device has been meant to run yet. Heck, there aren't enough apps to look at on the device yet, period.

So where's the positive spin on the PlayBook then, if it's missing key functionality and a large stable of apps like the iPad or Android tablets?

It really has to do with the actual potential of the device. Unlike the iPad 2, forthcoming Android Honeycomb devices or the HP TouchPad, the PlayBook will be able to run a lot of different kinds of apps.

Initially, you're going to see stuff written in Adobe Air/Flash and in HTML5 "WebWorks" because that's what's available in the current PlayBook SDK. But (hopefully) come this summer and fall, the PlayBook will also have native C++ as well as BlackBerry OS 6-compatible Java applications.

With such a wide range of APIs avaliable to write for, this makes the PlayBook a dream app development machine, particularly for the enterprise which is certainly more interested in stuff like mobile ERP and Business Intelligence type of stuff than the latest version of Angry Birds.

This is not to say that consumer apps aren't important for the PlayBook. For it to be a well-rounded tablet, it absolutely still needs those to gain market traction. Unrealized potential doesn't mean much if there's nothing good to run on the device.

One of the ways that RIM is going to try to get traction in the consumer space and beef up that app portfolio is for the PlayBook to be able to run actual Android 2.3.3 applications in addition to the Java apps written for BlackBerry OS 6.

In a couple of previous pieces, most recently RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook: A Better Android than Android? I theorized on how RIM might actually make that Android compatibility work. This was purely conjecture on my part, based upon my understanding of technologies currently available on the market and how QNX functions.

Today, after a brief call with Research in Motion, I actually did learn how the yet-to-be-demonstrated PlayBook Android compatibility actually works. I have to say, they went the route I thought they were least likely to do, which is to run re-compiled, re-packaged Android applications on a Dalvik-compatible JVM running natively on the QNX OS.

Apparently, just like in Sin City and Frank Marino's "Divas Las Vegas" female impersonator revue I saw last week, PlayBook's QNX is going drag.

[Next: RISE, FrankenBerry! RISE!!!!]»

This is not virtualization as I suspected it might be. This is binary-level API emulation more akin to the way WINE runs on top of Linux to provide Windows compatibility.

Essentially, what RIM has done is to write/modify their own proprietary JVM that is able to natively execute Android Dalvik bytecode that has been spit out of the Google Android SDK, once it has been run through a special re-packaging tool.

This code/app re-packaging tool that RIM is going to distribute to developers later on this year converts the native Android APK file format to the BlackBerry BAR file format,  code signs the app for use on the PlayBook, which in turn allows the app to be submitted by the developer to the BlackBerry App World for monetization.

Also Read: Can RIM's PlayBook sustain an Android Parallel Universe?

RIM has already told me that they have no intention of running Android Market on the PlayBook, so you should abandon any dreams of that happening if you thought it was going to.

RIM hasn't yet shared with me the details as to how this is exactly going to work, but later on this year, developers will have tools at their disposal to test these re-packaged apps to ensure that they run properly on RIM's special Android JVM -- which I repeat is not Google's Dalvik, but their own special JVM that is compatible with Android 2.3.3 and below APIs.

Since this special JVM is not an officially sanctioned port of Google's Dalvik to QNX (nor is it full-blown Android with the Linux kernel and Dalvik virtualized) we have to assume that compatibility is going to be best effort.

That means that a whole bunch of apps are going to be broken out-of-the-box and will need to be re-compiled and debugged to run on this new pseudo-Dalvik, or this "Android Player" as they currently call it.

RIM has already told me that only "pure" Dalvik programs written for Android will work -- if there are any hooks into C++ using the Android NDK, you can forget about it working properly unless you re-write those pieces of code in Dalvik-compatible Java.

If you want native C++, you'll want to take advantage of QNX's own native SDK when it comes out.

There are obviously a number of things which concern me about this Android compatibility approach. First, is the need to cross-certify everything on a completely different JVM than on the platform it was intended for.

Second is the fact that while RIM's sandboxed player may be Android 2.3.3 "Gingerbread" compatible at launch, it means that any Android app that uses the Honeycomb 3.x APIs won't function. It also means that as the 2.x branch of Android continues to evolve and get API enhancements, Android apps written to those APIs won't function either.

Waterloo is going to be playing a continual game and vicious cycle of follow the leader, where Google takes its sweet time in releasing  Android source code, and then RIM has to incorporate that functionality back into the PlayBook Android-compatible JVM in order to make apps run correctly which were written to take advantage of that platform.

RIM hasn't discussed with me any sort of roadmap for how they intend to continue to enhance and improve Android compatibility, but you can expect that any new APIs that need to be built into Franken-Dalvik going forward are going to lag months behind Google's partnership Android tablet and handset manufacturers getting the "real" Android incorporated into their devices.

It's going to get messy, for sure.

However, there's a strange side effect and perhaps a benefit to this approach that might not immediately occur to the Android development community regarding all of this Google-imposed API lag.

And that is that since the PlayBook and QNX only runs on RIM-produced devices, maybe "Franken-Dalvik" is the closest the industry is ever going to get to a "Standardized" version of Android.

I know that sounds a bit crazy, but just as iOS is a single worry-free standardized development target for iPhone and iPad developers, this new RIM Android JVM could also be considered a single development target. Compile to RIM's certified APIs for Android, and you have your enterprise Dalvik application execution environment.

By being an API subset that is known to work on RIM's devices, it could become a de-facto programming standard. This is in stark contrast to the fractionalization that is currently occurring in the "Real" Android ecosystem with tons of different handset and tablet device profiles running a wide mix of OS versions.

And the fact that RIM probably had to negotiate with Oracle in order to indemnify themselves and their enterprise customers from any ongoing litigation related to Google and Java in order to create their Franken-Dalvik in the first place doesn't suck either, especially if you are a large organization looking to build enterprise Android apps and deploy them on a large scale.

RIM hasn't confirmed with me that they have any indemnification agreements with Oracle yet, but I suspect that this has to be the case because they are an official Java licensee.

Will RIM's special Android JVM on QNX be a liability that requires them to constantly trail and chase Google's APIs in a never-ending Dalvik compatibility race, or will it allow them to pull in front with real enterprise mobile application standardization on Java? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility, BlackBerry

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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54 comments
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  • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

    As wonderful as the hardware of the playbook is, if the general consumer doesn't have the app library that they expect then the sales to the consumer will mediocre at best. So I beleive building an android emulator is a short term strategy that RIM will be using to give consumers an incentive to buy the playbook. Now once the playbook has a solid consumer following (wethwer this strategy will work or not is a different story) then more developers will have an incentive to start developing for the playbook. One that happens I beleive RIM will ditch android all together.
    nehmeg
    • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

      @nehmeg

      But why develop specifically for the Playbook when they can just develop for Android and have a presence in both markets?

      I can see the big ERP and BI vendors writing Playbook-specific apps, but not developers aiming at consumers.
      OffsideInVancouver
      • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

        @OffsideInVancouver
        For basic games that don't require the full power of the CPU then I can see the developers developing their games once and deploy it to both Android and Playbook. But for CPU intensive games such as 3D games then you'd have to develop the game natively.
        Not to mention that the Android emulator will run Android 2.3 which is the phone version and it will run in a stretched mode on the 7" tablet which will deteriorate the quality of the graphics.
        nehmeg
    • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

      @nehmeg I wonder how many people even know what apps they actually want to run? Most of my friends cannot name a SINGLE iPhone or iPad app other than maybe... maybe Angry Birds. I do not buy the idea that casual consumers go out with a list of apps in mind looking to buy the phone or tablet. Rather most just believe they will be able to browse the web, watch/listen to media, and take and view photos and maybe video. And for any tablet (even the PlayBook) there are apps for this. People that buy it will learn to use those apps.

      Corporate buyers on the other hand -- they of course research support for specific apps/uses. Yes.
      southlander
      • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

        @southlander
        I agree with you. Ipad/Iphone has 250000 apps I think. I'm certain most of them are junk and only a small percentage of them you can consider quality apps. Out of those quality apps most people will download and actually use only a few of them.
        Take Facebook for instance. It has some of the best flash games which the playbook can play without any problems and that's something the Ipad can't even start to dream of.
        nehmeg
      • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

        @southlander So most people you know can't name a single iPhone or iPad app. How does this really matter? How many Android or BB apps can they name? Smartphone buyers these days (at least iPhone and Android buyers) may not be able to name apps but they know there are a ton available and due to these apps they expect to do a lot more with their phones than you mentioned. They included the emulator in the Playbook to help boost sales. They can say they are targeting enterprise (and it may be their primary focus) but by including the emulator they are also targeting the consumer market. They know they have to also target the consumer market to boost sales because enterprise is not likely to purchase in numbers that is going to compete with the iPad anytime soon but we will see.

        @nehmeg You are certain that most iOS apps are junk based on what? Only a small percentage can be considered quality apps why? Let me guess, because you have never tried any but you hate Apple and/or iOS so that makes your statements true? Just like any platform out there not all apps are going to be of higher quality or even worth while but there are a ton of very good apps in the App Store no matter what you want to think. To make your point you have to resort to Facebook and flash games. Yes iOS devices do not play flash and bring up talking points doesn't make your point any more valid. I am happy they don't use flash but that me. I personally don't care about Facebook but apparently unlike you I use my phone/tablet to be productive, not siting on a social networking site all day playing games.
        non-biased
    • The end of the iEra is near

      With RIM releasing a version which will run android apps and the govts backing up the playbook rather the the iPad, the end of the iEra may very well be coming. Here is more: http://tablettechtoday.com/news/news-news/russian-government-to-show-a-red-signal-to-ipad-while-a-green-one-to-rim%E2%80%99s-blackberry-playbook.html
      Bonchucin
  • java apps?

    what I dont get is.. if these future apps are java.. why do they have to be "recompiled" ??
    Phil Brown
    • compiled bytecode

      @Phil Brown Dalvik is compiled bytecode. While programs use Java syntax, it is not Oracle/Sun's implementation of Java.

      see:

      <A HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalvik_(software)">Dalvik (Software) Wikipedia</a>
      jperlow
      • Still don't get it

        @jperlow I didn't really understand the Wikipedia article. Surely the whole point of Java is write once run anywhere. If RIM puts in a Java virtual machine, it ought to be possible to run any Java Android program without recompilation. The whole GUI is abstracted from the OS so buttons, windows, menus etc should all appear in the right place. If Java does not provide this functionality, it's not the best thing since sliced bread after all!
        The Star King
      • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

        @The Star King

        That's part of the problem with Dalvik... it's a Java-like language, but it isn't Java. Kinda like Microsoft's J++ or J#. But, Davlik is NOT Java... and the reason Java's write once run anywhere doesn't work is because Davlik is NOT Java. It just has a lot of stolen Java IP in it.
        eak2000
      • Syntax use is not an IP violation.

        @eak2000
        As jperlow said, Dalvik uses Java syntax. The output is not compatible with Oracle/Sun's version of Java.

        So any claim of IP violation would be on the syntax itself, or possibly the framework layout. Syntax is difficult to prove since Java is based on C. The framework claim that Oracle is attempting to base their lawsuit on is supposedly on libraries that aren't in the actual Dalvik build, but were rather unit test files to test the compiler. They would have to find it in an actual build on a handset. And even then, it's possible that the license attached to Dalvik and Android make the handset manufacturer more liable than Google themselves.
        PolymorphicNinja
  • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

    This will ALWAYS be behind the curve. RIM know this. They are not really serious about Android compatibility. They talk about the need for "app tonnage" [sic]. What they mean is they need to claim a large number of applications for the PlayBook (never mind the quality, feel the width).

    RIM hope this will "jump start" the Playbook, selling lots of units based on these fairly bogus metrics.

    My gut tells me this might be "bait and switch". If they sell enough to get developers writing Playbook apps, then the Android part will get no love at all. No updates, no patches, nothing. This is a guess, but why would they? What RIM want are native Playbook apps.

    And you don't think Google will make this difficult for them?
    jeremychappell
    • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

      @jeremychappell

      You mean kinda like Motorola's Xoom app number claims? Most of those are Android 2.X apps and never mind the quality, just look at the raw numbers please and thank you.
      eak2000
  • Does the following comment still hold true?

    "...And even if you could recompile them, there are numerous licensing issues that you might need to contend with as a developer, such as the various Open Source licenses including GPL when co-mingling with QNX code. It could get messy."

    (Another great "Perlow Prognosticative Philosophical Programming Pearl of Wisdom" .. Sorry, I couldn't come up with a synonym for "Wisdom" that began with the letter "P" -- Grin)
    kenosha77a
    • No, because NDK isn't supported

      @kenosha7777 Nope. Does not hold true, since you cannot use the NDK. Although if you port other apps to the native QNX SDK, and they are open source, you'll have to build the libraries yourself.
      jperlow
    • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

      @kenosha7777

      perspicacity
      ranga_rangarajan
      • A wordsmith lives amongst us!

        @ranga_rangarajan@...

        Thanks .. that fits quite nicely.
        kenosha77a
  • RIM should quietly drop Android compatibility

    RIM should
    1) Only allow native apps
    2) Produce Wifi only model (not 3G). Use Blackberry for that
    3) Not put an email app. Use Blackberry for that.

    Stick to your guns! This gives a distinctive product with emphasis on security, enterprise. When people travel, they take their phone anyway so why 3G (with extra contract for owner). Playbook is really an accessory for the Blackberry phone.

    Having a distinctive high quality product avoids them having to compete directly with iPad.
    The Star King
    • RE: RIM's Android compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook and QNX will be a big game of chase

      @The Star King

      Agreed.
      kenosha77a