Given the dominance BlackBerry once enjoyed in the U.S. among smartphone makers, the news that Research in Motion will allow Android apps to run on its latest phone models still comes as something of a surprise. RIM will make the as-yet-unreleased QNX operating system compatible with Android software in the new BlackBerry handsets coming next year, according to reports this week. The company may also release an upgrade of its PlayBook tablet to Android apps later this year as well.
Considering how fast BlackBerry has fallen in the face of competition from Google and Apple in the smartphone wars, it's a smart move by RIM to make its platform play nice with Android apps. The Google OS surged past BlackBerry as the top smartphone platform at the start of the year, according to comScore and hasn't looked back. BlackBerry now sits third behind Android (40%) and Apple (26.6%), with 23.4% market share.
What's more, the company's BlackBerry App World has hardly achieved the scale of Apple's App Store or the Android Market, with more than 500,000 and 300,000 titles respectively. By not limiting users to apps from its own app storefront, RIM is making its phones and tablet more relevant to users in a medium where apps still play a role.
That step could especially help RIM expand beyond the business-focused apps BlackBerry is known for to a wider selection of entertainment and gaming titles. That would fit with the company's broader strategy to court the consumer market more aggressively. But RIM's Android outreach wouldn't be without risks.
The Android Market, after all, has been hit with malware attacks, leading Google earlier this year to remotely kill infected apps on users' phones. For a platform like BlackBerry that's made communications security a hallmark of its offering, Google's hands-off approach to vetting Android apps and recent history of malware outbreaks won't help BlackBerry's buttoned-down reputation.
The larger question is whether the opening to Android apps is a wedge that will open up a wider role for Android on BlackBerry devices or a tighter relationship between Google and RIM. The CrackBerry blog last month offered 10 reasons why Google will acquire RIM, including the latter's patent portfolio, strong base in the enterprise market, and QNX compatibility with Android.Of course, that was before Google's $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola, which may have sated the Internet giant's appetite for mobile patents for now. But at the pace Google is pushing into mobile, despite an ongoing antitrust investigation, anything is possible. Unless, that is, Microsoft, Dell or some other suitor scoops up RIM first.