By Stephen Schenck | February 6, 2013 7:53 PM
One of the most nerve-wracking positions I can imagine a business in the smartphone or tablet game can find itself in is the introduction of a new platform. We just saw once-RIM-now-BlackBerry take that leap of faith last week, and while hard sales figures haven’t yet arrived, the qualitative assessments that have already come in seem quite positive. That’s great news for BlackBerry, but even with all the uncertainty surrounding the BB10 launch, the company had a heck of a lot going for it, not the least of which is fantastic brand recognition.
Not everyone’s that lucky, though, and some other smartphone upstarts on the horizon will undoubtedly face far rockier roads. One thing some of them (BlackBerry 10 included) are planning to do to help give themselves a little bit of an edge is offering some degree of compatibility with existing Android apps. That bothers me a little, and while I can’t deny that I like the idea of a jack-of-all-trades smartphone platform with broad app support, the whole thing feels a bit like cheating, and using Google’s efforts in building-up Android to the incredibly popular OS it’s become as a crutch for their own insufficiencies.
So, who’s doing this? BlackBerry 10 (and the PlayBook before it) has an Android runtime it can use to execute existing Android apps, as will the upcoming MeeGo-based Sailfish OS from Jolla. We’ve also seen a compatibility layer for Tizen developed by OpenMobile, providing it with its own access to Android apps.
One of the big concerns I have with these systems is the degree of their compatibility. We’ve heard some pretty bold claims, like one of 100% app support from OpenMobile, and while we’ll need to put the system through its paces before knowing just how accurate that boast may be, it’s pretty difficult to accept at face value; after all, even with full-on Android devices, certain models have trouble with certain apps.
With BlackBerry 10, the Android runtime currently only supports apps designed with Gingerbread in mind, and won’t work with those apps demanding a more recent API level. BlackBerry has said that it’s working on a Jelly Bean compatible upgrade, but that just reflects another problem: just like how Android users are captive to manufacturers to release updates letting them run newer and newer OS versions, so too will the users of all these other platforms be reliant on an ongoing stream of Android interpreter updates in order to keep compatibility up to par – and that’s on top of whatever work these companies need to do developing enhancements for their own OSes.
Issues with compatibility can doom a system that’s too heavily reliant on its ability to run another’s code. We can learn a lot from history here; just look thirty years back at IBM’s introduction of the PCjr. It was supposed to be a home version of the PC with features like support for ROM cartridges and joystick ports. The problem was, while it could run a lot of PC software, its ultimate compatibility rate was somewhere below 50%. Combined with other hardware problems, that led to it being a huge commercial failure. Now, the sort of compatibility issues that we’re talking about with these Android runtimes don’t sound nearly so bad, but if they can’t run a few of the handful of apps that really matter to you, the other 99% that run fine won’t add up to mattering in the least.
Even when compatibility isn’t an issue, I’ve got a more philosophical problem with making Android support a key selling point of your new platform. There’s a lot of room in Android already for doing things differently, and a company interested in releasing a platform that’s more of a tweaked take on Android is free to do so. We’ve already seen success along that line from the likes of Amazon and its Kindle Fires, or even the Barnes & Noble Nook. If you don’t want to go that far, come up with something like MIUI.
It just seems to me that if you’re going to commit to creating a new mobile platform, going all-in is the thing to do, without any Android crutch to lean on. That’s what we saw with Windows Phone, and make no mistake, that platform continues to struggle. A large degree of the trouble it’s had has stemmed from a lack of apps, and it’s been tough to convince developers to commit the time and resources to coding specifically for Windows Phone. Maybe this is just some wrong-headed machismo speaking, but I think Microsoft deserves some respect for taking the hard road like that. Then again, it’s not like Android was ever even an option for it.
With BlackBerry 10, the company already worked darn hard to make sure it would launch with 70,000-some apps, so the Android support feels more like a nice bonus than anything else. As for these other guys, time will tell how they frame their own Android compatibility, but I think it’s a big mistake to launch a new platform when that means heavily relying on the apps of another.