Android apps running on the Blackberry Playbook lead to unjustified excitement.

Mobile May 03, 2011 No Comments

This morning, the world saw the public demonstration of Android apps running on the Blackberry Playbook. RIM had previously announced that they would be supporting this functionality, but this was the first chance to show off the process in public.  Mobilified expressed concern over this approach in the past, and today’s demonstration has done nothing to change that stance.  What’s odd is the level of excitement that overlooks some key problems with both the implementation and the strategy as a whole.

RIM has clearly been building this on the fly over the last couple months and the fact that they could show anything at this point was somewhat impressive.  In fact, the people running the demo seemed well aware of this, as their scripted interplay seemed designed to push back on some of the concerns that had already been raised.  I admit, I was surprised that they managed to get individual Android apps to show up in the application list as if they were native apps.  I wouldn’t use the word impressed, since that was probably the easiest task.  What would have impressed me would have been a deeper level of integration that is missing form the Android implementation.  Allow me to explain.

The demonstrators kept of stressing that the Android apps are integrated, but I didn’t see that at all.  Other than getting them all into the general-purpose app list on the Playbook, the apps live in their own world on the Playbook.  Remember, RIM has told us time and time again that the advantage of the Playbook is the UI and the fact that QNX is a powerful, real-time environment that allows for true multitasking.  While running Android apps, they only exist in the Android app player and not as separate applications running in the WebOS-like “cards” metaphor.  What that means on a practical level is that every time you select an Android app from the app list, it replaces the one that was already running in the app player.  There is no such thing as true multitasking when it comes to the Android apps.  What’s unclear from the demo is what exactly happens to the state of the app when multiple Android apps are selected in succession.  Is the state frozen?  Do they keep running in the background?  How does the Playbook manage the battery life if they do?

From an aesthetic perspective, you’ve now added a separate layer of interactivity to the apps.  The hands-down, best thing about the Playbook is moving around the multitasking interface, but none of that exists for Android apps.  To return to the one that is not the last one used, you have to bring up the menu, select the app list, hit the app and dive into it, breaking you away from the flow that RIM worked so hard to steal from WebOS.  Yes, it seems to functionally work, but functionality is not what is selling the iPad right now. What’s selling the iPad is the clean, simple experience, something that RIM at least had a shot at offering in its own way.

Furthermore, they made a point to talk about how easy it is to move an Android app over to the Blackberry App World.  Presumably, this will entice Android app developers to submit their apps to RIM, but at what cost?  The cost will be to native development on QNX.  If RIM thought it would be hard to attract developers to work on QNX before, just wait until everyone realizes they can just use their pre-existing Android app and that will be “good enough.”  In the end, it hurts RIM’s platform.

What’s worse, it hurts the opportunity to write native apps that could end up being superior to Android apps.  Are there any cross-platform apps that don’t look worse on Android than they do on iOS?  Just look at these side-by-side comparisons on Android Gripes.  There’s no question that the comparatively weak Android Market, weak SDK and need to support multiple resolutions and hardware has hurt the quality of Android apps, yet this is the catalog that RIM thought it absolutely had to support.  If blowing up phone apps, designed partially for portrait use, and putting them in landscape on something you call a tablet is a good idea, then RIM has really knocked this one out of the park.  If it’s not, then this smacks of desperation and a lack of confidence in their own platform.

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