BlackBerry embraces Android


Chris Keall

BlackBerry's PlayBook will soon get Android-friendly. But will it be soon enough

Embattled BlackBerry maker RIM has made its first step toward embracing Google’s Android software - a move that could help pull the once-so-dominant gadget maker out of freefall.

At a developer conference in the US today, RIM revealed a series of tools that will allow programmers to tweak Android apps to run on the BlackBerry Playbook tablet.

(If you follow the Android camp, the other big news today - at least for punters in the US - is the resurrection or an iconic Motorola brand in the form of the Droid Razr, pitched as the world's thinnest smartphone at just 7.1mm deep and, this afternoon NZ time, the handset that may be known as the Samsung Nexus Prime, or the Galaxy Prime. Motorola, is of course, in the process of being acquired by Google. The Prime will be the first device to run the latest version of Android, code-named "Ice Cream Sandwich", which merges the smartphone and tablet iterations of Android into a single version - which should help the tablet app drought.  No word yet on local release for either smartphone.)

RIM's promise is that any app you can download from the web and run on a Google Android device (such as the smartphones and tablets from the likes of HTC, Samsung, Sony-Ericsson and Motorola) could also run on the Playbook – from business apps to Angry Birds.

The company also said the proprietary QNX software that runs the tablet will be merged with its smartphone software to create “BBX”, which will power future BlackBerry devices – hitting that Android-compatibility could spread across its entire range.

There’s a key technical question, which remains open: will there be any performance hit? (a RIM rep said no when NBR posed this question a couple of months back.)

But more importantly, there’s a key commercial question: is embracing Android enough to turnaround RIM’s fortunes?

Sales of BlackBerry’s core smartphone range have actually grown over the past 12 months, but not as fast as the trendier Apple iPhone and Android-based devices.

Seeing the momentum moving away from RIM, investors have punished the Canadian company.

Today, its shares [NAS:RIMM] are trading on the Nasdaq at around $US22.95, a calamitous fall from the stock’s 52-week high of $US70.54 (recently it fell to a six-year low of $US19.29 before a Reuters story saying Vodafone was considering buying RIM lead to a rebound. RIM could the report “fiction”).

A couple of the low-lights: The September 18 revelation that Playbook tablet sales were less than expected (500,000 in the quarter, compared to around 10 million for Apple’s iPad) led to a 20% fall in a day. An offer of $US100 in free apps to make up for a multi-day, multi-continent BlackBerry service outage (which didn’t affect NZ) saw RIM shares drop 5.9% yesterday. (Today it's up around 2.5% on the Android news.)

RIM’s Android embrace will involve sharing app revenue with Google – but of course RIM is hoping it will be of a much larger pie.

NBR’s take: it will make the Playbook (which, beyond its thin app support, is a stunner) a very attractive tablet.

And in the smartphone market, the backlash against RIM has already gone too far. BlackBerry handsets still enjoy some notable advantages over iPhone and Android, in security, data efficiency and battery life. If, via BBX, Android support filters through the entire BlackBerry line-up, that could power a big rebound. 

The question, though, is when.

NBR asked a RIM Australia rep when Android support would make it to real-life release.

“Soon,” she replied.

But will it be soon enough?

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