Porting Android Apps Won't Solve RIM's PlayBook Problems

Growing evidence suggests RIM is looking to permit applications written for Google's Android platform to run on its PlayBook tablet. Here's why this is a bad idea.
Research In Motion is on the cusp of releasing the PlayBook, it's first tablet and first device based on the QNX platform. Even though the device was announced in late September 2010, it has yet to ship. RIM's been hard at work finalizing the operating system.

In the interim, Samsung announced and then shipped the Galaxy Tab, and Motorola announced and then shipped the Xoom. Apple is prepared to announce the iPad 2, and reports suggest it will be available almost immediately.

The PlayBook runs Adobe's AIR and Flash on top of the QNX base code. It requires developers to use not one, but three different developer environments. Some developers have spoken out about how miserable (and expensive) the process of registering to develop truly is. That leaves many wondering what sort of app availability the PlayBook will have when it launches. After all, the PlayBook won't be able to run any of the apps developed for BlackBerry smartphones, which run Java.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress, a RIM engineer was caught on video saying that the PlayBook would be able to run Android applications. This seems to corroborate earlier reports from The Boy Genius Report, which suggested that RIM was looking to use Google's Dalvik Virtual machine to run Android apps in PlayBook OS. The report was backed up later by a separate story that was published by Bloomberg.

Let's assume, for the moment, that these reports are accurate, and RIM will indeed allow Android applications to run on its PlayBook tablet. Is this a good idea?

At first blush, you might think it a wise move. After all, it would give RIM immediate access to more than 200,000 Android applications. Apps, we all know, are what make or break a smartphone platform these days. The same is being assumed for tablet platforms, many of which are running scaled-up smartphone operating systems. More apps for the PlayBook would be a good thing, right?

No. At least, not this way.

First, how are developers (who are already frustrated with the PlayBook) expected to react? Will Android apps run natively in PlayBook OS, will they require extra tweaking, who will be responsible for support, and what about making sure developers are paid? Also, what version of Android are we talking, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, HoneyComb? What about varying screen sizes, resolutions? Headaches, all.

Further, by giving developers an out (i.e., allowing them to skip creating native PlayBook OS apps and instead just tweak existing Android apps), it damages the PlayBook OS. It would be a blatant admission on RIM's part that its home-brewed tablet operating system isn't good enough and/or hasn't generated enough interest from developers. RIM would have done better to simply make an Android tablet of its own.

Beyond shooting the PlayBook in the foot, this would also jeopardize the future of the BlackBerry. RIM has suggested that the BlackBerry of the future will run this new QNX-based platform. But if developers bail on PlayBook OS and stick with Android (and other platforms), who's going to be left supporting RIM?

Using a competing platform's applications for what it supposed to be its premier enterprise product is an absolute disaster in the making, and one that RIM should avoid.