Is RIM doomed to repeat history?

by alec on February 11, 2011

I invite you to cast your memories back to 1992.  No, not the election of Bill Clinton, but the IBM launch of OS/2 2.0.

OS/2 2.0, IBM’s multi-tasking OS with the ability to run Windows applications in virtual machines was widely touted as “a better Windows than Windows”.  And indeed, compared to Windows 3.1, it had many advantages.   It could run Windows applications and OS/2 applications.  It could isolate Windows applications in separate virtual machines so that when one instance of the notoriously unstable Windows OS died, you could keep working.  And it multi-tasked oh-so-smoothly as IBM’s pre-eminent OS/2 sales pitcher David Barnes demonstrated over and over again to rapturous audiences.

OS/2 was a huge hit with technophiles.  Developers, however, didn’t take to it as readily.  Why write an OS/2 native application, they reasoned, when a Windows application would do?  The OS/2 market was small, the Windows market huge, and the extra expense for a native OS/2 application wasn’t justifiable.

In 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95.  Technically it closed the gap with OS/2.  More importantly changes in the Windows OS made it more difficult for OS/2 to virtualize.  Without a developer base of native OS/2 applications, OS/2 withered on the vine and died.  In 2006 IBM stopped building new versions.

The lesson of OS/2 vs Windows is that there is no substitute for building a strong native application ecosystem.

It has been widely speculated since the RIM Playbook announcement that RIM might include some kind of Android compatibility in the Playbook.  The rumours, it seems, just won’t die.  This morning’s Postmedia Network papers contain a piece by Hugo Miller and Olga Kharif making this claim again, BGR reported January 26th that RIM might be choosing the Dalvik Virtual Machine for Playbook (which Android is built upon), Fortune wrote about this rumour in December and so on and so on.

The strategy under discussion is the addition of an Android compatibility mode to the Playbook’s QNX operating system.  The thinking is that enabling Android applications to run natively on QNX would allow customers to use the 200,000+ native Android applications that are out there already.  Instant ecosystem.  QNX would become “a better Android than Android”.

This is a risky strategy.

Bringing Android apps to Playbook risks ceding the developer ecosystem to Google. Developers wouldn’t need to write Playbook apps – an Android app would allow them to cover both bases.

Bringing Android apps to Playbook risks giving control of the Playbook user experience to Google. In order to have the best Android experience on Playbook, RIM will need to devote a team to just ensuring that their VM retains compatibility with the Android VM.  And what should developers target?  A native Android experience, or a native Playbook experience?

Small changes in Android could cripple Playbook. What if changes in the Android VM made it harder to virtualize on Playbook?  What if Google decided to pull Android Market support from RIM?

In short, RIM’s success could become tied to Google’s good will, and over time there may be fewer and fewer native RIM applications as developers put their energy behind Android’s momentum confident in the knowledge that their applications will run on RIM platforms.

We still don’t know what RIM’s actual strategy is.  Let’s hope that their strategy is more than just hitching themselves to the Android band-wagon.

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