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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

StuWiley February 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I just tossed out an OS2 mousepad while cleaning out the garage the other day, remnants of ISV and developer marketing program management days.

As part of Microsofts Developer Marketing Group back in the day, I too find the Playbook strategy puzzling. We had a similar conversation with Palm last year pror to launch of the Pre SDK. Bottom line is that execs hadn't bothered to engage a critical mass of developers and were totally unaware of the bashing they were about to take from competitive platform afficianados. Failure to mitigate the negatives in the blogosphere that impact perception and put doubt into an OS adoption thought process is simply poor marketing. (contact me if you want to know more).

The lesson of OS/2 vs Windows is that there is no substitute for building a strong native application ecosystem. This means both MARKETING and TECH adoption. Care and feeding of the ecosystem on both fronts is paramount.

Creation of critical mass adoption levels comes from diverse applications, plus the marketability and sustainability aspect of the underlying OS and future migration strategy.

As every seasoned program or project manager knows, the goal is to remove critical dependencies, not create new ones – especially those based on Goodwill. Hooking yourself to a business interest that can make a paradigm shift that leaves you in the cold isn't a viable long term business model.

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Tsahil Levent-Levi February 26, 2011 at 5:57 am

Alec,
I tend to agree with your reasoning.
I think that RIM should either have continued with their own strategy, or just take Android with both hands and focus their differentiation in specialized apps and services (which they do already on their handset today).
Tsahi

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jay March 6, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Alec,

Good analogy but you failed to overlook one important consideration which is that Android is open source where as Windows OS is not. RIM will be developing an entirely new handset OS which is a superset of Android? After all, Android is open source; anyone can fork it. RIM could build an Android-plus OS, running on the Dalvik virtual machine atop QNX. Unlike other Android vendors RIM has its own App Store and can control the experience on its platform, existing Android developers would surely copy their apps over en masse to the App world provided there is not lot of over ahead.

-jay

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jay March 6, 2011 at 6:48 pm

[EDIT] – correction in sentence

Alec,

Good analogy but you overlooked one important consideration which is that Android is open source where as Windows OS is not. RIM will be developing an entirely new handset OS which is a superset of Android? After all, Android is open source; anyone can fork it. RIM could build an Android-plus OS, running on the Dalvik virtual machine atop QNX. Unlike other Android vendors RIM has its own App Store and can control the experience on its platform, existing Android developers would surely copy their apps over en masse to the App world provided there is not lot of over ahead.

-jay

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Alex October 23, 2011 at 10:49 am

Well noted, but what about licensing fees for J2ME JVM on playbook and on all future BBX devices? Compare it to free (as for now) Dalvic VM and Android. And "changes" as you've noted ("Small changes in Android could cripple Playbook") are not as bad as in case of OS2. RIM just allows its developers to use modern JDK1.6 based VM (from Android), not old crappy J2ME-based from BB OSes 4 to 7. Here is example – RIM released OpenGL ES support in BBOS 7 devices, but there is no 3d engine, which can work under j2me. No physics engine (3d or 2d) either. But you can have it, as long as you target jdk1.4+

Also, look where game development going – good portion of iphone and android games are done via multiplatform engines like Unity3d, Shiva3d, CoronaSDK and so on. RIM can concentrate on making them available on Playbook (actually, Unity3d and Shiva3d is already working on PB). This is the future of game dev.

I develop for BB and my experience tells me that RIM made tough decision. It definitively cannot satisfy 100% of involved people. But in long term this increases BBX's chances to survive and keep at least 3rd position in mobile space (and hopefully climb back to 1st)

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