RIM Finally Sees The Light. Unfortunately, It’s An Onrushing Train – Or Is It?

Strange things are afoot in my hometown of Waterloo, Canada, which doubles as Research In Motion’s headquarters. ShopSavvy says that someone there has been running their Android app — on BlackBerry devices. Separately, Bloomberg has reported that RIM’s forthcoming PlayBook tablet will run Android apps. A video from the Mobile World Congress allegedly shows a BlackBerry employee confirming “We’ll also support Android apps.” Their UK managing director refuses to comment on the subject. And if rumours of the mountain en route to Mohammed aren’t enough, there are also reports of Mohammed travelling to the mountain: BGR claims that RIM will soon release their prized BlackBerry Messenger as an Android/iOS app.

Thus far it’s all just smoke and rumours, no confirmed fire … which is also how one could describe the PlayBook itself. RIM first announced the device back in September. My very first TechCrunch post in November was in part about how RIM should embrace Android, he said slightly smugly. Since then, Samsung has released the Galaxy Tab, Dell the Streak 7, and Motorola the Xoom; next week, the iPad 2 will emerge — and yet the PlayBook still has no firm ship date. But at least RIM have been busy on the BlackBerry front, right? I mean, in the last four months, they have announced or released … er … exactly zero new handsets. (They have, however, announced three new VaporBooks. I’m sorry, PlayBooks.) Perhaps they were focused on shoring up their inferior app-development tools? Ask this developer, whose caustic and hilarious rant about RIM’s extreme developer-unfriendliness went viral in the hacker community last week.

RIM remains highly profitable, and its sales are still increasing—but the same was true of Nokia, which last month leapt off its burning platform into Microsoft’s icy embrace. RIM too seems on the verge of its come-to-Jesus moment. They have a little more time, because the corporate behemoths who have adopted BlackBerries will be loath to abandon them, but the simple truth is that Research in Motion’s products are not remotely as good as their competitors’. BlackBerries have an antediluvian OS, a bad browser, an inferior app ecosystem, and hardware and pricing that is at best on par with Apple and Android. They do have somewhat better email, messaging, and security – but who really cares about that? And before you answer “enterprises,” bear in mind that most of the Fortune 100 have already adopted the iPad.

The PlayBook is beginning to look like RIM’s last, lone hope. It’s allegedly a terrific piece of hardware, running their sleek new QNX OS, and I think there’s a lot of room in the market for a good little tablet. The Streak 7 and Galaxy Tab aren’t it, but a PlayBook that runs Android apps would qualify — if it didn’t have to tether to BlackBerries. Unfortunately, that apparently remains RIM’s policy, even though it’s like chaining an Olympic swimmer to an anchor and telling her to win a medal.

But undoing that horrible mistake still won’t save them. If RIM coerces their devices into supporting Android apps and also releases their superior email and messaging software to the Android Market, then they’re tacitly admitting that their App World is dead. After all, what developer would ever want to write a BlackBerry-only app again? And apps are like Dune‘s spice; whoever controls a device’s apps controls its universe. That’s why the Android Market, unlike Android itself, is tightly controlled by Google.

So let me speculate. Most people are suggesting that RIM will support Android apps via some sort of emulation mode. Some have argued that they should officially adopt Android, as Nokia considered. But there is one other possibility: might RIM 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, able to do everything Android does and offer security and messaging features that Android doesn’t. They couldn’t license Google’s Android apps or Android Market — but if RIM built their own Android marketplace, existing Android developers would surely copy their apps over en masse, and they could replace Google’s browser, maps, and email apps with ease.

Again, this is pure speculation, but it could explain most of the strange rumors cited above; it might at long last give people a reason to buy a BlackBerry, other than “the IT department demands it”; and it would set the stage for a titanic struggle between RIM and Google for Android supremacy. Pass the popcorn, and don’t count RIM out yet. Maybe, just maybe, they’re about to get back in the game.

Image credit: e27singapore/Flickr