Analysis BlackBerry may have “solved” its app problem - but at the expense of the health of its native BB10 app market.
Android apps can now be installed without conversion, and run at near-native speed on BlackBerry devices, after the latest leaks of BlackBerry OS 10.2.1.
Of course, BlackBerry would prefer developers to write native apps for BB10, its sophisticated QNX-based operating system. It also includes an Android runtime with the OS. However, Android apps currently need converting from the .apk format to the .bar format, a process which was a kind of compatibility “MOT test”, ensuring the app wouldn’t write to an unsupported API call.
This meant that converted Android apps had to be separately sourced and sideloaded, which required switching the device into developer mode and using specialist software.
Now BlackBerry has dispensed with the “MOT” and .apk files can be downloaded and run instantly from Android app stores, such as Amazon’s Android market or 1-Mobile. The changes come in the latest leaked version of BlackBerry OS 10.2.1, which has entered beta testing, and which supports the Android 4.2.2. JellyBean runtime.
The most recent BB10 release, 10.2, saw Android apps run at near-native performance levels thanks to hardware acceleration, as we confirmed in our Z30 review.
BlackBerry fans are naturally quite excited by all this.
So, as if by magic, a large number of Android apps which would never have been ported to BB10 now run, and run well – so users report. But nothing comes for free, and the drawbacks are twofold. The Android apps haven’t been checked for security, and long term, there’s little incentive for developers to create a native BlackBerry 10 version of their wares.
The parallels with the desktop PC wars of 20 years ago are now quite spooky.
A burp from history
When IBM launched its 32-bit version of OS/2 in 1992 it faced a similar chicken-and-egg conundrum. OS/2 boasted far greater security and stability than Windows, and richer APIs for IPC (inter process communication), process support (such as threads), and a futuristic object-based desktop. There really wasn’t anything like it, and it all ran on a bog standard PC. But OS/2 lagged far behind Windows in terms of developer buy-in. Without compelling native apps, customers wouldn’t want to use the new platform.
Developers didn’t write to the rich OS/2 APIs because the small user base didn’t make the effort it worthwhile. They either ignored OS/2, or used crude porting tools to turn single-threaded Windows apps into single-threaded OS/2 apps. Or they used lowest-common-denominator cross platform toolkits to target both OS/2 and Windows.
The outcome was the same: users never really saw the benefits of IBM’s powerful OS. IBM knew all this, so it marketed OS/2 on its ability to run virtualised DOS and Windows apps natively. The marketing slogan was “A better Window than Windows”. Quite often it was true: the DOS or Windows app sometimes ran even faster virtualised than it did natively, and if it crashed, the whole system carried on.
Yet this merely made writing native OS/2 apps even less attractive. And it obliged IBM to play cat and mouse with Microsoft, which set the rules on compatibility. History appears to be repeating itself here too.
Google is aware that Amazon has its own Android fork, while Samsung bundles a non-Google alternative of the key apps into every Galaxy. Just as Microsoft introduced drivers into Windows with the side effect of breaking OS/2 compatibility, Google’s “embrace and extend” makes more and more of Android dependent on its on proprietary APIs.
With so many parallels, you could assume BlackBerry is destined to suffer the same fate. But there are some interesting differences.
Why now isn't then
One is that Google today is a predatory $50bn-a year market-munching monster, and no rival is prepared to indulge it in the way they indulged Microsoft. Twenty years ago it was common to hear the view that Microsoft “was freeing us from IBM”. Such naivety is pretty rare now – outside the groupthink of Android fanbois who are apparently incapable of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
The other factor is that the dynamics of the hardware industry are now quite different. IBM’s PC division needed to sell Windows, and Microsoft played very tough indeed. If you continue to sell OS/2, Microsoft’s OEM reps explained to the IBM PC guys, you’ll either not get a Windows license, or your Windows license will be very expensive indeed.
But ODMs face a subtly different situation. Sure, if they want access to Google’s services they can’t sell devices based on a forked Android. That’s in the “open” Android licence agreement. But that doesn’t bother Amazon, which has forked Android and maintains its own branch - and simply points users to its own services.
And quite soon, it won’t bother Samsung either. ODMs want a vibrant app ecosystem and they don’t really care what’s underneath. If the industry wishes to avoid being steamrollered by Google, it needs to go “Android compatible” and develop its own mix of services on top.
That’s where the dark horse of BB10, which, according to today’s conventional wisdom, becomes a liability for BlackBerry. Perhaps it’s a better Android than Android?
Stranger things have happened. ®