RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

Summary: In the ever evolving saga of weird science surrounding RIM's 7" tablet, a strange rumor has emerged regarding possible Android compatibility.


In the ever evolving saga of weird science surrounding RIM's 7" tablet, a strange rumor has emerged regarding possible Android compatibility.

The story behind Research In Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry PlayBook and its development path in-progress got a bit weird today when Boy Genius Report reported on a rumored possible Android-compatibility mode under development at the company's evil QNX lair in Ottawa.

How would the the PlayBook be able to run Android applications? Through a native port of Google's Dalvik Virtual Machine, the pseudo-Java VM (JVM) that lies at the core of the Android OS.

Now, I'd like to point you to this article that I wrote back in May of 2009 which describes EXACTLY how RIM might accomplish this, but so that you get a complete nutritious breakfast out of this post, I'll tell you how the "FrankenBerry" might come to light, again.

At the time I proposed that RIM could do a native port of Dalvik to the the BlackBerry OS so that its smartphones could take advantage of the Android application ecosystem. However, the level of effort required would be significant, and I thought it probably made more sense for RIM just to move to an Android-based platform rather than go through all that trouble.

Flash-forward a year later to April of 2010. RIM buys QNX, an Ontario, Canada-based developer of a proprietary microkernel-based UNIX-like operating system and in September announces that it has decided to use it as the core of its BlackBerry PlayBook and eventually, future BlackBerry smartphones.

Initially, the PlayBook is to launch with Adobe AIR-based applications. Legacy support for the BlackBerry OS apps, which run on RIM's special implementation of J2ME, will come later. A "Native" QNX developer kit for C/C++ and OpenGL 3D graphics is also planned, and developers are expected to get their hands on these new SDKs, hopefully in the near future.

Still, there is the issue that BlackBerry is coming into the game as a brand-new player when the product launches, and they will be far behind in terms of application offerings when compared with the iPad or even the first 4G Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" tablets, such as the Motorola XOOM, which are due in late Q1 2011.

Based on my discussions with various developers who I have talked to, response to the PlayBook's native AIR platform has been tepid at best, and RIM's traditional J2ME developers feel pretty burned, since they've been treated as second-class citizens with the PlayBook not having Java support during the ramp-up to product launch.

A Dalvik-based PlayBook has the air of last-minute desparation about it.

Nevertheless, the ability for the PlayBook to run Android apps would be compelling -- but it would be a Frankenstein-like device, neither BlackBerry nor Android. It would be some bizarre hybrid of the two.

Porting Dalvik to QNX would be far less of an endeavor than making it run on RIM's legacy BlackBerry OS, because QNX shares the same POSIX roots as Linux does, which runs at the core of Android. Effectively, this would be no different than porting any Java implementation from one UNIX OS to another, since they use similar development toolchains.

Dalvik bytecode for ARM would just plain "run", for the most part, although there would be some platform-specific differences that could cause developers some agita when porting their apps.

And of course, only "Pure" Dalvik applications would work without much fussing about. Anything that uses the Native Android (NDK) support, such as many of the games that run on that platform and use Linux development libraries would not work out of the box unless the the required C/C++ shared libraries were ported directly to the native QNX OS.

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.

Beyond the porting challenges, there is also the issue of Java licensing. In order to stay out of Larry Ellison's gunsights, RIM would have to hand over a substantial sum of money over to Oracle to cover patent indemnification and copyrights, and I'm sure their existing Java license that they use on the BlackBerry OS doesn't cover it already.

Additionally, having Dalvik on the PlayBook doesn't ensure that it will have a library of applications to run either. It's unlikely that Google would certify the PlayBook as an Android variant in order to get access to the Android Market. I also don't see RIM wanting to play nice with Google either, since there is no way they could monetize app downloads using Google's Market.

Instead, RIM would have to build Android package support into their BlackBerry App World, and developers would have to re-submit their applications, re-packaged and tested for the PlayBook's Frankenstein Dalvik variant.

Heck, if they are going to go through all this trouble, they might as well just install a full-blown mobile hypervisor on QNX, virtualize actual Android, and call it a day.

So the question of "Is this doable" is answered -- Yes. However, will RIM actually go down this bizarro path? Who knows. Would Android application support make you more likely to buy a PlayBook over a competing device? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Android, Google, Open Source, BlackBerry


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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  • Since RIM is using QNX, not Linux, the job is a lot harder. For HP using

    WebOS, it would be a lot easier. QNX is really clunky, and they would be better off with Linux. That said, QNX is a Unix like kernel, and it IS possible to port the Dalvik VM and application environment to it.

    It might be their only hope to compete with QNX in smartphones and tablets.
  • It seems like your saying this scenario can work but

    when the PlayBook is launched, it will have only a core set of apps or capabilities and due to developer hesitation or business cost realities, new applications will be few and far between. (Good luck with that one, RIM)

    If we thought the Android universe was fragmented before PlayBook, and this scenario plays out, I can only imagine what it will be like in six months or so.
    • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

      @kenosha7777 Correct.
  • Holy crud!

    That's one horrible device.
  • Your share?

    Ok, so if RIM does build some type of Android support and since we all heard it here first, do YOU get a cut? I mean, since it was your idea, isn't that copy-write (copy-wrote?) or something.....?
    • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

      @Nerill If I had a million dollars for every time I've written about an idea that's been acted upon years later...
  • Very unlikely

    RIM is known for the security of its devices. Android is just more Google spyware. It would go against the very culture of RIM to let Google into their frame. And, it would go against the mindset of most RIM users to do so.

    As for Dalvik, you said yourself that it would expose RIM to legal issues with Oracle. Another case of Google stealing someone else's IP to make more money.
    • Rim isn't letting google into their frame...


      Rim isn't letting google into their frame... They are just trying to bastardize QNX so it can easily use all the existing and future Roid apps. The thinking is that no one wants a phone that doesn't have a ton of apps. The problem with the thinking is that they are gunning for Roid apps, the worst, malware infested, buggy apps on the market.

      What will be interesting to see is will those malware infested, identity thieving apps unleash on QNX... I suspect they will... Imagine being able to slip your malware into the BB ecosystem and inside the BES servers and encryption... That would make QNX a worthwhile target for the bad guys... All they have to do is write a Roid app and wait for a frankenberry to bite.
      • The ideal would be to be fully compatible with iOS4 ...

        @i8thecat ... apps but Apple won't let that happen. RIM needs to either retain compatibility with the Apps already in its ecosystem or make it VERY EASY to port them over. Anything else will require RIM to rebuild its application based from scratch - OR be fully compatible with te ony other ecosystem currently out there. Android.
        M Wagner
    • Well, this is RIMs conundrum, isn't it?


      RIM needs to retain all of the current strengths of RIM-OS (security and robust compatibility with MS Exchange) while expanding its capabilities to meet the emerging needs/wants of road-warriors seeking tablet-like capabilities.

      Recall that the BlackBerry Storm was RIM's response to the iPod Touch and envision a larger tablet device in response to the iPad. The problem for RIM is that they need something more robust than RIM-OS to fill the bill.
      M Wagner
  • I wrote about a year ago...

    ...that RIM would do well to adopt Android as their OS and then plug in/rebuild the enterprise apps, IM, etc that they do very very well. This may be a step in that direction but I think will be hard to achieve comparable performance. Regardless, the requirement to be tethered to a BB phone for full function will, imo, lead to a LOT of lost potential customers.

    They don't have the leverage anymore to force people to purchase a phone to be able to use the tablet completely and effectively excluding 70% of the market who bought other phones is really just a bad idea.

  • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

    If RIM would include a FREE RDP client then it would be lovely as we will able to run Windows apps through software such as ThinServer

    • Yes, a robust RDP client would benefit the BlackBerry ...

      @bojanwojan ... greatly. With all of the iPad Apps available, I have yet to find a robust RDP client. I would love for MS to offer such a thing for the iPad.
      M Wagner
  • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

    Why not ask Apple for an iOS license while their at it. Oh, wait that might represent market failure. But, if Apple would ever license iOS in some to capture more enterprise, Blackberry would be a good "obedient" partner.
    • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

      You raise an interesting point. Will Apple ever license their OS X or iOS software to third party hardware?

      Apple only did that one time and they learned to regret that decision. I would imagine that as long as Steve Jobs is still in charge (medical leave not withstanding) or his first generation management team is still in place, the prospect of using OS X and iOS software legally on third party hardware will remain just a dream.
      • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

        @kenosha7777 I don't see it happening. Would take a lot of changes to organizational as well as to core institutional philosophy. Nothing is impossible, but still.
      • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?


        You know, Jason, my first response to Jeff.fostermedia was the most logical response. But on second thought ...

        If Apple did license iOS to third party hardware manufactures, it could be a "way" of combating Android in the future. (I'm thinking way back to the Betamax vs VHS wars. Had Sony licensed it's Betamax tech to third party vendors, history might have turned out differently.)

        Apple already enjoys economic "economies of scale" advantages regarding mobile device parts (LCD displays and the such). If they made the choice to compete against "their own mobile product", so to speak, by allowing a legal copy of iOS on third party devices, Apple may not be undercut in price and/or style. What Apple would lose in hardware sale profits, they might make up for those lost dollars in a greater expansion of their App Store sales. It would amount to Apple "morphing" into Microsoft. (Interesting thought on a snowy cold winter day.)

        It would be a risky, RISKY move but some results from that Corporate strategy might be: Microsoft might remain a minor or non-player in the mobile market. (And, it would force Microsoft to "think out of the windows box" for once. It might actually improve that company and turn them into an "Apple Corporation" of sorts where they are the highly talented minor player seeking a comeback.)

        Complete role reversals. Like you said, a major organizational change to their core institutional philosophy.
    • Apple is a hardware company ...

      @jeff.fostermedia@... they cannot afford to license their software to other hardware manufacturers.
      M Wagner
  • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

    I'm not sure you're thinking about this the right way. They're adding Java support. This is good because they're developers already know Java. The way they intend to add Java support is looking like it might be Dalvik.

    This doesn't mean they're trying to run Android apps on Playbook. They're trying to run Java apps on Playbook.

    Now, because Dalvik is open source, porting it QNX should be no biggie. The fact that this will make it easy for Android developers to port their apps to QNX is a bonus, and probably one reason why they're considering going down the Dalvik path.

    I doubt very much they're trying to run a whole lot of completely unedited Android apps on Playbook. They are just using Java's "write once, run anywhere" capabilities to make porting of Java apps easier.

    I think this is smart. Dalvik has a lot of oomph behind it right now in the mobile space, so why not make it easy for your legacy (Java proper developers) and Android (Dalvik) developers to move their apps to your new platform? App World would barely have to change at all...
    x I'm tc
    • RE: RIM's PlayBook: Is it an Android FrankenBerry?

      @jdakula They already have a platform license from Oracle for J2ME. They -have- a JVM already. Dalvik CANNOT run Java applications. The bytecode is completely incompatible. It runs ANDROID applications.