RIM embraces Android apps for PlayBook, but at what cost?

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, or so the old saying goes--and with few if any positive signs that beleaguered Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) can mount a convincing comeback against Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) fast-growing Android operating system, RIM is bowing to the inevitable, confirming rumors that its forthcoming PlayBook tablet will run Android applications alongside the company's signature BlackBerry apps. Last week RIM said the PlayBook will launch on April 19 with two optional "app players" that provide a runtime environment for BlackBerry Java applications as well as apps running Android 2.3, both of which the manufacturer will make available for download via the BlackBerry App World storefront--additionally, RIM will release a native SDK for the tablet, enabling C/C++ application development on its BlackBerry Tablet OS.

Both the BlackBerry PlayBook and the BlackBerry Tablet OS are built on the QNX Neutrino microkernel architecture, which promises developers easy portability of C-based code alongside support for OpenGL for 2D and 3D graphics-intensive applications. According to RIM, it's all as simple as repackaging, code-signing and submitting Java and Android apps to BlackBerry App World; to further spur programmer interest, RIM will partner with cross-platform game development solutions providers Ideaworks Labs and Unity Technologies to enable developers to more efficiently port their games to the PlayBook. "This is further confirmation that OEMs are recognizing that they need to work closely with developers, and provide support for multi-platform development," Ideaworks president Alex Caccia told FierceDeveloper in an email.

RIM has been synonymous with BlackBerry for so long that it's almost impossible to consider one without the other. But the PlayBook acknowledges the harsh truth: Few developers still want to write BlackBerry applications in a world where Android and iOS rule. Without embracing Android, RIM runs the risk of releasing a tablet with a scarcity of compelling apps. The PlayBook compromise means developers can still write for RIM products without creating directly on the BlackBerry canvas. But speaking of compromises, it doesn't appear RIM has gone all in on Android--in fact, because the PlayBook will run Android apps inside an emulator, performance will be sluggish compared to native QNX apps.

RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie points out that the Playbook supports apps based in Android 2.3, not Android 3.0 (a.k.a. Honeycomb), the first version of the OS optimized for larger devices like tablets. "I don't know what the number of Honeycomb apps is, but it's not very many. Whereas Gingerbread they've got lots of them. You've got the volume of the handset apps, so if you're looking for the tonnage of apps, or some kind of long tail stuff, you've got it," Balsillie said during RIM's earnings call last week. "At the end of the day, people are going to want performance. You're just not going to get things like gaming and multimedia, you're not going to get the speed going through a VM interface. If you want content, or Flash type stuff, or you're looking at AIR-type, evolving web-type assets, that's what you're going to do. There's no compromise here. You've got the tonnage of apps. And you've got the performance. Do I think the tonnage is overplayed? Yes." 

What Balsillie appears to be saying is that the PlayBook will offer a handful of native applications that perform beautifully and an abundance of Android apps that perform poorly, at least by comparison. That certainly doesn't sound like an experience that's positive for anyone--developers or consumers. RIM may have joined with Android, but even weeks ahead of launch, the PlayBook already looks beat. -Jason