BB10 AND Android? How BlackBerry can have its cake and eat it

Expect GreenBerrys and BlackBerrys growing side by side

Analysis New BlackBerry handsets are coming with unrecognized part numbers, which were spotted on an Indian import database.

Three weeks ago, Reuters reported that new models from the company would run Android – raising question marks over BlackBerry's own proprietary BlackBerry OS 10 (BB10) platform. In the absence of a rapid explanation – BlackBerry is inviting international media to a US event in late July – the rumor and speculation are highly damaging. Some very dubious leaks have depressed the fanbois further.

To date, CEO John Chen has justified investing in two expensive propositions: developing a proprietary platform and designing and selling phones, so long as the phones division doesn't lose money.

While Chen talks about "end points" rather than devices, producing his own secure "end points" gives BlackBerry a foot in the door at enterprises where it sells a rich software stack, ranging from secure device management to over-the-top services. But something has to change.

Sales of BB10 devices are bumping along at just over 1m per quarter, with a cumulative total under 10 million; that's not a lot to show for two and a half years.

For comparison, Xiaomi shifted 40 million in the first half of this year. It isn't clear that the existing strategy is sustainable. But it's surprising that BlackBerry's most interesting option has barely been discussed. It may well be able to have its cake and eat it.

Let's have a look at all of its options.

Put crudely, BlackBerry could do three things. It could withdraw from platforms and stay in handsets, writing off its investment in BB10, and focus on badging and adding value to somebody else's platform. Inevitably, this means Android-flavored BlackBerrys: GreenBerrys, perhaps. Throw in hardware encryption SecuSmart and the clever virtual SIM feature called WorkLife, and enterprises would be fairly happy they were getting a secure device at a low cost.

Or BlackBerry could give up making handsets altogether, which, given the lack of market interest in the BB10 platform, really means it gives up both the platform and the devices. But this is a very crude picture, and it doesn't fully cover all of BlackBerry's options.

QNX, on which BB10 is based, has many tricks up its sleeve, and we reported on one of them in February: the new high performance hypervisor. This allows the host system (BB10) to run a guest OS, such as Android. The hypervisor incurs a small performance penalty on the host, claims BlackBerry, and of course there's an additional cost: it requires enough RAM for both to run comfortably.

But BlackBerry's QNX team boasts that the guest handicap is small single digits. And because QNX has virtualized the GPU, it also claims the hypervisor can throw high performance graphics output to multiple displays concurrently. This is the pro-cake, pro-eating it policy.

QNX's hypervisor hosts Android or Linux. It's due in Q3. Source: QNX/BlackBerry

Most of the cost of developing BB10 is a sunken cost. If a QNX hypervisor-based BB10 phone can do a passable imitation of an Android, then BlackBerry can sell both. BlackBerry currently ships with a runtime that offers excellent Android application compatibility and performance – but the smooth performance stumbles when an app needs to call Google services, and an increasing number of apps do.

Google Play services aren't supported, and the phone needs a few hacks and patches to get round this. If Google permitted the hypervisor to run a full Google Play Android image, then that problem would go away.

BlackBerry announced its crown jewels, such as the distinctive Hub and virtual keyboard, were being ported to Android earlier this year

The appearance of a BlackBerry device running Android is generally assumed to herald the end of BB10. But as we've just seen, that's nonsense. BlackBerry could continue to use BB10 for higher-end, higher-performance devices even if the platform is in maintenance or minimal-investment mode, being updated for new chipsets and drivers.

These would ship with a full Android system image. And these "true" BB10 devices could be marketed alongside "secured" Androids. And given the company's public statements, that's just what I expect to see. ®

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