Is Android on PlayBook even necessary?

RIM says it's opening its tablet to Android 2.3 apps just weeks before the device goes on sale. The move indicates the smartphone maker lacks confidence in its own platform and development community.

RIM is changing the game plan for its PlayBook tablet to include Android apps.
RIM is changing the game plan for its PlayBook tablet to include Android apps. James Martin/CNET

Almost six months since the introduction of the PlayBook and just weeks before it goes on sale, Research In Motion is throwing us yet another curveball. RIM now says that in addition to BlackBerry and PlayBook apps, its tablet will also have the ability to run Android apps .

Reaction has been mixed, to say the least. Some are cheering RIM for being "open" and giving the PlayBook customer more choices of apps. And while those two things sound great in theory, it's also a sign that RIM needs some clarity of vision.

RIM has long been a smartphone powerhouse in North America, though its lead has been rather quickly erased by the iPhone and Android phones. In tablets, RIM is working from the back of the pack, just like everyone that's not Apple. Still, the BlackBerry maker, which has an arguably good product and idea --targeting its obsessive, loyal business customers with a secure, enterprise-oriented tablet--has made a decision that's very much a head scratcher.

Allowing a competing platform's apps on your own in the thick of the battle for mobile platform supremacy indicates RIM is severely lacking confidence in its own platform. There are really only two tablets out right now that are credible competitors to the iPad, Motorola's Xoom, and Samsung's Galaxy Tab, both based on Android. Why be just another outlet for Android apps?

It's not like RIM doesn't have its own robust developer community. There are enough people happy to write apps for RIM to have whole conferences dedicated to them. Sure, there are about 10,000 apps on BlackBerry App World versus Apple's 350,000 (65,000 for the iPad specifically) and Android's 150,000. But why play the number's game? If they do, so will their developers. Why bother developing specifically for the PlayBook? It would seem much more efficient for a developer to make Android apps that will have yet another outlet.

HP has decided it can't beat iOS and Android so it's focusing on what makes WebOS different from those two, not the same. RIM would do well to consider a similar approach.

It is true that potential users of the PlayBook are responding positively to the idea of Android apps on the PlayBook. A quick poll of CNET readers last night after the announcement found that 70 percent of respondents think this is a very good move for RIM because it offers choice of apps, and is being more "open." But let's look at how this could actually play out.

"Open" is the buzzword that Google and its fans like to use to separate its mobile platform from Apple's since anyone can make and submit an application to the Android marketplace, whereas Apple has to approve each one. But "open" is probably not what the IT guy at your office that manages the BlackBerry Enterprise Server wants to hear. RIM has built its reputation on security and manageability, which is why so many businesses have flocked to it over the years. Saying you're being more "open" can send somewhat confusing messages.

But in truth, it's not the same kind of "open" as many would use to describe Android--open-source OS whose source code is freely available ( well, mostly) for anyone to tinker with. That's not the case here. RIM bought QNX Software and has built its BlackBerry Tablet OS on it. No one will be tinkering with it outside of the folks at RIM.

Plus, there won't be the standard Android Marketplace on the PlayBook. Instead, Android apps will be ported to RIM's own storefront for Android apps, which RIM will monitor. And once downloaded, those Android apps will be running in an "app player" that will basically trick the PlayBook into thinking it's an Android device.

It's also true that allowing Android apps on the PlayBook does offer choice of apps to users. They can run Android apps or BlackBerry apps on the Playbook. But it's Android 2.3 apps, not Android 3.0 apps. Android 3.0, or Honeycomb, is the version of the OS specifically designed for tablets. Every version prior to that, Google has said, is not optimized for tablets . So this means that RIM is bragging about a 7-inch tablet will run apps created for smartphone screens. Not exactly the most promising user experience or a way to showcase the size of the PlayBook's screen.

In any case, RIM seems like it's making last-ditch efforts to just stay in the tablet race before they've even entered. Why don't they put a product on the market and see how customers respond before constantly tweaking the vision just weeks before launch? When the folks in Waterloo, Ontario, come across as not confident in their own platform, it just gives potential customers reason to feel the same way about the product.

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

 

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