How RIM Could Make Android Apps Run on the PlayBook

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Decisions, decisions -- should you plan to buy a BlackBerry PlayBook or one of the new Android-based tablets unveiled at CES? That choice could soon get a whole lot easier, because if the rumors are true, the PlayBook may be able to run Android apps.

Research in Motion (RIM) declined to comment on the scuttlebutt, but the idea itself is sound. RIM needs some kind of Java environment running on the PlayBook if it wants developers to be able to port their existing BlackBerry OS 6 applications to the PlayBook's new, QNX-based OS. (RIM did confirm to InfoWorld's Paul Krill that it has not yet chosen the JVM it would use to in its Java environment for the PlayBook.) What form that environment will take is still up for grabs, but one option the company is reportedly considering is Android's Dalvik virtual machine.

Dalvik has advantages over the Java ME virtual machine that RIM uses now. Although developers write apps for Dalvik in the Java language, apps compiled for Dalvik are smaller than ones compiled for Java ME, and the Dalvik VM itself has been optimized to run at maximum efficiency on mobile devices.

Perhaps equally important, Dalvik is not the JVM. It's a unique virtual machine implementation that Google claims does not infringe on any of Oracle's Java patents (although, naturally, Oracle says different). It's also open source software, released under the commercially permissive Apache license. If RIM is looking for a way out of Oracle's licensing scheme for Java ME, Dalvik could well be it.

Still, questions remain. Dalvik's biggest drawback is that it doesn't execute Java bytecode directly. Java class files need to be recompiled before they run on Dalvik, which means none of the existing BlackBerry apps would run as is. That might be OK, though, because RIM has already said developers will need to "repackage" their BlackBerry code before it will run on the PlayBook.

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Even if RIM does go with Dalvik, support for Android apps would be another matter. To achieve that, RIM would have to build a complete Android compatibility layer on top of the PlayBook OS, to run side by side with its BlackBerry compatibility layer. How would memory management work in that scenario? What about cut-and-paste? The engineering hurdles would be steep.

Although full Android compatibility would be a challenge, it could be worth it. App fever rages unabated over in iPhone-land, and the Android Market is picking up steam. But RIM hasn't had much success drumming up enthusiasm among developers. If the PlayBook could run Android apps, it would give RIM an instant ecosystem of third-party software to entice new users.

But how would PlayBook users get their Android apps? There's an obvious problem if RIM lets users download apps from the Android Market. In that scenario, Google, and not RIM, gets a percentage of every sale.

A better strategy would be for RIM to provide some degree of Android compatibility on the PlayBook, but not go all the way. If RIM could create an SDK that made it easy for BlackBerry and Android developers to quickly and easily repackage their existing code to run on the new tablet, it could be enough to kick-start the PlayBook development community and still keep the profits in RIM's pocket.

This article, "How RIM could make Android apps run on the PlayBook," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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