RIM’s Android Support Lacking

RIM has leaked (or released?) more details on Android support on Playbook (I haven’t found anything official on the RIM or Blackberry sites), and it isn’t encouraging. Basically, Android apps with more than one launch entry point, and anything that uses the Native Development Kit (NDK), Google Maps, VOIP or in-app purchases won’t run. This is on top of the previously announced restrictions around which parts of the Android SDK will work (which is based on Android 2.2, sort-of). Basically, what RIM wants are the simplest of Android apps. Lack of NDK support eliminates a fair number of games. While Maps and in-app purchase will limit a smaller number of apps, it still limits them, and the lack of VOIP support leaves out apps like Skype. A number developers use multiple launch points for performance. The support for a somewhat older version of the SDK isn’t that a big deal, for now, but Android is moving forward, and playing catchup with an emulation layer isn’t trivial. The Playbook’s Android support will always be behind.

Then we have the runtime environment: it will run inside a “Android Player”, which sounds like something of a virtual machine providing a bridge between the Android SDK calls and the QNX world. If this has any sorts of problems, people are going to blame the developer and not the player. I can see developers having to deal with calls and complaints that have nothing to do with their app and everything to do with the player. Most customers won’t distinguish between the two. Even if it is stable (and it could very well be, but this is a pretty complicated issue to deal with), then we have to wonder what limits will be enforced in terms of resources like memory, how will data persistence work, and what kind of limits will be on accessing other hardware features on the device.

The big kicker, that was in the March announcement, is the requirement that Android apps will have to repackaged and code signed, and then put on the Blackberry App World store. This will also require that the app be put through RIM’s review and approval process, which I’ve heard is not great (there are complaints in the Blackberry developer forum about it!). So, if you want an Android app on your Playbook, you can’t go to Android Market and get it there. You have to hope that the developer has gone through the process (and trouble) to get it to work on Playbook, and has made it through review and approval to get their app on Blackberry App World.

There are just too many “it will work, except…” or “it supports Android, but…” to believe that this is really a viable path for anyone with an Android app. There are too many limitations and restrictions in terms of feature support. The player is still a huge unknown. The process to make an app available is verging on onerous. All of this to address a user base of less than 1 million machines, and one which is slowing in growth, and not gaining. For me, I’m not sure it is worth the effort. I just can’t see the business case for it.