How RIM is steering BlackBerry toward QNX

RIM software CTO David Yach discusses a single BlackBerry OS that works on two very different devices, and the tie-up with Bing that is about more than search

As BlackBerry maker RIM negotiates a tricky operating-system shift, ZDNet UK talks to David Yach, the company's software CTO, about tablets, smartphones and the key mobile issues.

Research In Motion (RIM) is a company making a difficult transition — from BlackBerry, the operating system and platform that has made it a success, to the QNX operating system used in its PlayBook tablet.

It is a transition being made in the face of the explosive growth of Android and the market dominance of Apple's iOS platform and devices. What does the latest iteration of the BlackBerry OS, the company's newest devices, and its announcement of a search partnership with Bing mean for RIM's future?

ZDNet UK sat down with RIM's software CTO, David Yach, and asked him to explain how that tie-up makes BlackBerry different and how the different technologies will work together.

Q: With PlayBook and BlackBerry OS 7, you have got two different operating systems — and several different development systems. What's the advantage and how do you bring that diversity together in future versions?
We've got the PlayBook tablet OS based on QNX. We've got the BlackBerry 6 and BlackBerry 7 OS. Our next-generation BlackBerry platform will be a combination of the best of both. From the PlayBook we'll get that multitasking powerhouse and the multimedia. From BlackBerry we'll get the rich email PIM [personal information management] experience.

We've shown that on PlayBook already — that was what was running inside the BlackBerry player that we announced. How better to prove the BlackBerry player is real if it can run the most complex apps that run on BlackBerry today which are our own email, PIM and calendar apps? That will be our path for taking those apps to market on the PlayBook.

I'm a big believer in continuity. We get continuity for our customers. For our partners who have built apps for our Java environment, the BlackBerry player gives them the capability of carrying those apps forward. We have this robust foundation with QNX underneath on the tablet. So, for example, it wouldn't shock you — since it's still in development — if the BlackBerry player crashes. But when it crashes, the player crashes and the PlayBook keeps running, so all the other apps that are running are still there and you can restart the BlackBerry player but your device doesn't reset the way it does with BlackBerry today. That approach is part of our whole future direction.

What about what RIM has called super apps; apps that integrate information from core BlackBerry apps or show notifications in the inbox? Do they still work? Can they be Adobe AIR apps as well as Java now?
Everything in the player really is the BlackBerry 7 environment carried forward on PlayBook. We absolutely are extending the whole super-app model to the rest of the system. The intersection with AIR? Absolutely, but it is a journey.

Everything in the BlackBerry player really is the BlackBerry 7 environment carried forward on PlayBook.

From my perspective as the guy who has to deliver the software, one of the pure joys of delivering a Wi-Fi-only PlayBook is there's no carrier certification and we're able to innovate and deliver more rapidly. We've already delivered an update. We can effectively release new functionality as it's available rather than waiting for a big-bang release at the end. It gives us a lot more flexibility. We don't have to hold back on things while we're waiting for other pieces.

So I wouldn't be surprised if we have the super-app capability in the BlackBerry player before it fully integrates with the AIR apps, say, but that will come. Clearly, security and super are part of our DNA. We have all this stuff around security, yet somewhat paradoxically...'s key to us that you can seamlessly flow from app to app but still do it in a trusted and secure fashion.

Is this similar to the way customers are able to divide personal and company data on the BlackBerry with Balance, and on the PlayBook with BlackBerry PlayBook Administration Services?
The whole idea is being able to clearly separate your personal stuff from work stuff. The simplest case is the wipe, which wipes out the corporate data but not the personal data. But people start thinking about Big Brother watching what they're doing at work, especially when it's a device you've purchased yourself.

You can't yet manage a PlayBook with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). When you can, will there be a way of managing my BlackBerry and my PlayBook as both being my devices?
By effectively taking the BlackBerry 7 apps, BES comes along with that, BIS [BlackBerry Internet Service] comes along, all the closed security model comes along. What we are doing on the BES side is enabling the capability for BES to handle more than one device.

After talking with our corporate customers about how they'd actually like that to work, we're formulating plans to make sure people can have a tablet and a device. What we're hearing is they don't want somebody to have seven, eight or 10 devices, but they can understand the use case for two. So what we're doing is working to address that. The two devices are different so they want the ability to have a different set of policies for the PlayBook.

Going back to super apps, Android is obviously in competition with BlackBerry, but is the agreement with Bing about more than just a search engine that isn't Google? Are you planning to tie it into the super-apps philosophy?
Ironically, it all goes back to being the personal digital assistant. We are actually going to have the technology to fulfil the promise of the PDA from 20 years ago.

So, say you're at the Marriott World Center. We know that by geolocation, so we can do a web search and figure out what event is happening there: BlackBerry World. So we can pop up the agenda for BlackBerry World simply by knowing where you are. That's helpful. That's what an assistant could do for you and that's now what this assistant on your hip will be able to do for you — and in a way that doesn't creep you out.

So using context — in a way that isn't creepy — is going to be what differentiates BlackBerry from all the other smartphone platforms?
We did some analysis of why BlackBerry has been successful. My hypothesis was, maybe we sell a lot of BlackBerrys because we satisfy the basic human need to communicate better than other smartphones. We think of social networking as just relationships and communication but there are really three parts to it.

There's a relationship and there's a lot of context — background information, the history of our conversations, calendaring and so on. But the third piece is something nobody really thinks of. As part of the social contact that people have with each other — unless it's very superficial — whenever you have a conversation, you come away with commitments. We've agreed to have lunch. But then somebody has to make a reservation, somebody has got to make sure both of you know where the restaurant is. All that kind of stuff is part of the commitment.

The same thing with work: I have a report to do, I've got to look something up, I have to get back to you. Really what super apps are about is seamlessly flowing from that communication, getting context, and fulfilling the commitment.

This is what BlackBerry has always done well. What we're going to continue to do well. What's changed is, instead of 10 years ago when it was email and voice communication mechanisms, now you've got hundreds of them.

If you look at that next-gen platform, I use the analogy of a car. QNX and the OS are what's under the hood, which most people these days don't even look at. What we're calling the social platform is what it really means to interact and collaborate with other people.

Communication, context and commitments are what BlackBerry does well. I believe it's because we provide this ability for humans to interrelate with other humans better than anybody else.

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