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BlackBerry and Android: Together at Last?

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What do you do when your mobile operating system is woefully void of the kinds of apps that just might get people to buy your devices? If you're Research in Motion, you run Android apps on the BlackBerry PlayBook.

With the demise of WebOS hardware—and the dim prospect of WebOS being licensed to a third-party to compete with Android—the question of mobile operating system viability has shifted to BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) and its QNX OS.

QNX made its first appearance on the PlayBook, a RIM tablet that comes up short in both the features and available applications department. Its available applications are dwarfed by those available on Apple's iOS and Google's Android OS.

The QNX OS itself isn't the problem, as it feels in many ways like WebOS, with the ability to flick away apps being almost identical between the two operating systems. Yet the major limitation for both QNX and WebOS was a lack of applications available in their respective app stores.

With little attention being paid to app development for operating systems other than Android OS and iOS, RIM is in danger of losing more market share—unless it can solve the app issue.

RIM has come up with a novel idea on how to approach the lack of QNX apps: run Android apps on the Playbook.

In a recent demonstration, RIM showed off the ability to watch videos, play music, and interact with a variety of Android apps, all through a native Android OS.

The Android App Player isn't just an emulatoralthough it apparently is possible to just port a virtual machine like Dalvik to QNX—but rather a virtual machine. In much the same way that Parallels or VMWare Fusion allow Windows to be run within the Mac OS, RIM has chosen to run the entire Android OS within the Android App Player as a virtual machine. This is the only way for RIM to guarantee that almost any Android app plays smoothly on the PlayBook tablet.

The lack of any buttons on the Playbook makes a few interactions difficult, as some Android apps rely on those four buttons and the home button for certain functions and settings, but overall the apps shown in RIM's demo played quite well.

What's to stop a PlayBook user from just going to the Android App Store and downloading apps, thereby completely bypassing RIM's own app store? Turns out that plain vanilla Android apps can't play on QNX with the Android App Player unless they've been repackaged specifically for QNX.

An Android app developers must repackage their Android apps and submit them to RIM for possible inclusion in the BlackBerry App World. Only apps within the BlackBerry App World can be downloaded on to a BlackBerry PlayBook, although one suspects that a jailbreak would allow users in the future to download directly from the Android App Store if the PlayBook gains any degree of popularity.

One obvious question that's surfaced, now that the Android App Player has been leaked and tweaked by a few souls willing to spend hours downloading SDKs to modify their PlayBooks: Why not abandon QNX in favor of Android all together, especially since RIM is known for making bulletproof hardware?

That question may not be too far off the mark, yet it appears that RIM wants to breathe life into QNX for a bit longer. In addition, moving to Android OS as the primary OS on a BlackBerry product would make RIM's devices just another set of Android handsets and tablets, and the company would give up the potential revenue from the BlackBerry App World store, a major strategy component in today's smartphone competitive landscape.

Still, if Android app developers that create rich-media or video playback apps are slow to repackage their apps for RIM, or if these apps perform less robustly on Android's QNX version, it's feasible that an Android-based BlackBerry could appear in the near future.

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