BlackBerry PlayBook to Run Android Apps: What It Means to You

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet will support certain Google Android applications, but performance could be an issue. Here's expert analysis on what this news means to you--as a PlayBook owner, software developer or IT administrator--from CIO.com's Al Sacco.

BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) this week dropped a bombshell on the mobile world, confirming earlier rumors that almost seemed too far-fetched to believe when they hit the Web in January: RIM's new BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, going on sale in the United States on April 19, will run applications originally developed for Google's popular Android mobile OS.

Google Android Logos on RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
Images via Google and Research In Motion

It's difficult to predict what exactly the BlackBerry PlayBook's ability to run Android apps will mean over time--RIM still hasn't provided a number of crucial details on the actual mechanics behind the announcement. And it hasn't released any sort of video showing how smoothly Android apps will run on the tablet. But one thing is for sure: The news will have far reaching implications for RIM and potential PlayBook buyers in the coming months.

Keep moving for my analysis on what Android apps running on the BlackBerry PlayBook will likely mean to PlayBook users, PlayBook software developers and the IT administrators who'll support RIM's tablet in the enterprise.

What Android Apps on the BlackBerry PlayBook Mean to Users

First off all, it will likely be several months after launch before BlackBerry PlayBook users see any Android apps for their tablets. RIM says the Android "app player," which will be available via BlackBerry App World and required to run Android apps on the PlayBook, is "expected" this summer. But RIM also said the PlayBook itself would be released in Q1 2011, and that hasn't happened, so it could be August or September before even the app player becomes available.

Also, the entire lineup of applications available in Android app stores like Google's Android Market or Amazon's new Appstore for Android will not likely be available for use on the PlayBook. In fact, RIM only announced PlayBook support for Android 2.3, or Android "Gingerbread," apps, so it's unclear just how many Android apps currently fall under that description.

In other words, PlayBook users won't simply be able to run any Android application. That's because Android developers will need to "repackage" their apps for distribution through BlackBerry App World, then work with RIM to get them approved. RIM has not yet specified whether or not PlayBook users will be able to get Android apps from sources other than App World, but it says the repackaging process for developers should be relatively painless. (The BlackBerry-maker is not exactly known for its smooth and easy app-submission processes, to say the least, so I can't help but wonder just how Android developers will take to working with RIM.)

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Regardless, the ultimate success or failure of Android on the PlayBook, in my opinion, will hinge on just how well RIM's PlayBook app player--essentially an Android emulator--works. Will Android apps run on the PlayBook the way they're supposed to without negatively affecting overall PlayBook performance? If not, it probably won't take developers long to decide not to waste any more time and jump ship.

So, to sum that all up, RIM's Android-apps-on-the-PlayBook announcement sure sounds interesting from a user perspective. And the news will undoubtedly draw lots of attention. But we'll have to wait and see just how well it actually plays out; whether or not the PlayBook's ability to run Android will convince potential buyers to pull the trigger and go with RIM's tablet, or make the tablet more valuable to existing owners, will depend entirely on the Android-on-PlayBook experience.

I will say this, however: I'd be a heck of a lot more likely to purchase a BlackBerry PlayBook after seeing it efficiently run Android apps alongside BlackBerry apps than if the tablet could only run BlackBerry software. And I don't think I'm alone in that.

What Android Apps on the BlackBerry PlayBook Mean to Software Developers

Once again, I can only make predictions based on the information RIM has made available to this point, but in general, the PlayBook support for Android apps should be a good thing for Android and BlackBerry developers--assuming the new app-player emulators adequately function.

The PlayBook Android support should be good for Android developers, because they'll have a new audience of potential buyers who will be anxious to get their hands on the latest and greatest software available for their tablets.

And RIM says: "Developers currently building for the BlackBerry or Android platforms will be able to quickly and easily port their apps to run on the BlackBerry Tablet OS thanks to a high degree of API compatibility."

If this proves to be true, Android developers shouldn't have to do much extra work to get their apps ready for the PlayBook, so the potential return on investment could be significant. It is worth noting, however, that it's still unclear how "complex" Android applications that draw on various Android resources like GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc, will function on the BlackBerry Tablet OS. For example, will all advanced app-functionality be compatible with the PlayBook? If not, the value of some applications would be greatly diminished, and it might not be worth a developer's time to port over such apps.

For BlackBerry Tablet OS developers, the PlayBook's ability to run Android software should similarly be a positive development, drawing more attention to the PlayBook and hopefully translating into more PlayBook users/potential customers.

One possible negative I see is that over time, developers may be drawn to the Android platform and away from RIM's BlackBerry or Tablet OS. They could simply develop apps for Android, via user-friendly tools, and then port them over instead of creating full-featured apps, or "Super Apps" in RIM parlance, meant specifically to take advantage of the PlayBook's hardware/software integration.

I think the crucial elements to developer success here are, again, an effective--or even impressive--Android emulator, and an application port- and submission process that is as "quick and easy" as RIM promises.

What Android Apps on the BlackBerry PlayBook Mean to IT Administrators

It's more difficult to predict just how exactly Android support on the PlayBook will affect IT and BlackBerry administrators, as opposed to users and developers. That's because RIM hasn't really provided any concrete information on PlayBook's Android support and the enterprise. In fact, it's still unclear how exactly--or if--the cellular versions of the PlayBook will connect to RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES).

Remember, the initial, Wi-Fi only PlayBook will need to connect to a BlackBerry smartphone via "BlackBerry Bridge" to access corporate e-mail, calendar, tasks and more.

My guess is that RIM will eventually provide IT policies through its BES, or otherwise, to block the installation of the Android app player, should IT have concerns. And many IT departments probably will.

From RIM's press release on the subject:

"The new optional app players will be available for download from BlackBerry App World and will be placed in a secure 'sandbox' on the BlackBerry PlayBook where the BlackBerry Java or Android apps can be run."

From the sound of the term "secure sandbox," RIM already knows that enterprises and organizations will rightfully be concerned about the security implications of running an Android emulator on the Playbook. And by creating a specific section of the PlayBook that's isolated from any potentially sensitive information stored elsewhere on the tablet--not unlike the "dual personas" created via BES 5.0.3's BlackBerry Balance feature--RIM can effectively address this concern.

Another potential trouble area for enterprises is if RIM eventually allows Android applications to be installed on the PlayBook via sources other than BlackBerry App World. Such apps wouldn't be vetted by RIM and could easily sneak malicious code onto users' devices--though the above-described "sandbox" would presumably keep any malicious Android apps separate from sensitive information anyway.

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In short: RIM really built the PlayBook with business-use in mind, and as such, I have to believe it has seriously considered the security implications of running Android apps on its tablet. As such, I believe safeguards will allow IT to set various levels of control over the Android app player, so it can be blocked or employed securely.

AS

Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for CIO.com. Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Al at asacco@cio.com

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