Commentary

Role Reversal In Tablet Land

BlackBerryPlaybook

In the high-stakes battle for tablet sales, what's closed is open and what's open is closed. Research in Motion yesterday announced it would allow users to run Android apps on its forthcoming PlayBook, in a bid to broaden the appeal of its entry in the race to launch tablet computers that challenge the iPad's supremacy.

At the same time, Google said it's temporarily limiting access to Honeycomb, the latest version of Android designed specifically for tablets, contravening the open-source ethic the mobile platform is built on. The apparent role reversal by RIM and Google highlights their diverging fortunes in the mobile world.

Opening up the PlayBook and Blackberry App World to Android is an acknowledgment by RIM that it needs help from an erstwhile competitor to sell apps that in turn will help sell tablets. Native BlackBerry apps alone won't do the job. It's a bit like a Ford dealer deciding to sell GM or Toyota cars to boost business.

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The bigger picture for RIM doesn't look much better. The company's stock was trading down 10% Friday after and revenue forecasts for the current quarter, when it reported fourth quarter and full-year 2010 results Thursday.

BlackBerry OS, of course, has been steadily losing ground to Android and the iPhone in the smartphone market in the last year. Recent data from comScore showed Android for the first time edging ahead of BlackBerry to become the most popular smartphone platform in the U.S., with 31.2% share. And RIM's share of worldwide smartphone sales dropped to 14% in the fourth quarter from 20% a year ago, while Android has more than tripled to one-third, according to research firm Canalys.

In the emerging tablet segment, Apple is still dominant, with nearly 15 million iPads sold last year. Early sales of the newly released iPad 2 suggest demand remains strong. Meanwhile, manufacturers including Samsung, HTC and Motorola are rolling out a raft of new Android-based tablets, leaving RIM's PlayBook with an uphill battle.

Google, on the other hand, might be called a victim of its own success. A company spokesperson told The Wall Street Journalthe source code for the latest version of Android won't be widely shared, because Honeycomb isn't ready to be customized for a variety of devices. (The move won't affect existing partners like Samsung, HTC, Dell, Motorola and other companies already releasing Honeycomb-powered tablets.)

But a Gartner analyst surmised that Google for now wants to keep the new software out of the hands of low-cost manufacturers that might try to cut corners in development to push into the tablet market quickly. Holding back Honeycomb from open source distribution may undercut Google's dedication to creating an "open ecosystem" for the mobile world through Android, but competition can clearly lead to some unusual flip-flops.

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