RIM PlayBook to support Android

TORONTO – Just hours before Research In Motion announced it would support Android applications on its forthcoming PlayBook tablet, a member of its marketing team was doing everything possible to avoid answering a direct question about it from Canadian CIOs.

Alec Taylor, RIM’s VP of product marketing, was among the speakers at an invitation-only gathering of chief information officers organized by Tata Consulting Services (TCS) Canada, which focused on enterprise mobility. As he went through a detailed presentation about how the PlayBook, which will be available in Canada on April 19, would work with IT departments, one CIO asked him whether Google’s Android applications would be part of RIM’s game plan.

“We don’t really address rumours,” Taylor said, going on to discuss the reasons RIM keeps such information confidential until it is ready to make an official announcement.

“That was a really wishy-washy answer,” the IT executive in the audience said flatly.

She didn’t have to wait much longer for confirmation. Shortly after markets closed, RIM said in an earnings call that the PlayBook will put Android “app players” in a secure sandbox. So long as developers have ported their apps to work on the tablet OS and submitted apps for approval to RIM, users to download them from its BlackBerry App World. Java apps will be supported in the same way.

Taylor said RIM was taking a similar sandbox approach to deal with the most challenging issue facing the PlayBook and other tablets like the iPad – making IT departments comfortable supporting them as an enterprise device. Later this year, the company will introduce BlackBerry Balance, which will create a virtual environment in which to run corporate applications and e-mail while still allowing users to access Facebook and more consumer-oriented software programs.

All data using BlackBerry Balance will run through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) that IT departments use to manage RIM’s devices, which means if someone were to try and cut and paste from their company’s Outlook e-mail and paste it onto a social media service, they would be blocked according to their employer’s IT policy.

BlackBerry Bridge, meanwhile, will allow pairing between a smart phone and a PlayBook, mirroring PIM data and ensuring the same level of encryption as a BlackBerry running through a BES.

“We didn’t want (the PlayBook) to be an enterprise-only type of device,” Taylor said. “Consumerization can really get people swept away, but the fundamentals of security and manageability, they don’t go away.”

Dr. Satya Ramaswamy, global head of TCS’s mobility unit, said the IT services firm sees huge potential growth coming from tablets, which he said are “liberating” people from the desktop in vertical industries like retail and insurance where knowledge workers need to move around. Besides a desktop-like screen size, he said nearly day-long battery life is among the most appealing features, as is the instant-on capabilities of many devices.

“I was talking the other day with a customer at a health insurance firm, and he made a great point, which is that tablets are bringing computing to the ‘point of need,’” he said.

Taylor said RIM has been digesting a lot of feedback since the PlayBook was announced, particularly around its size.

“Why did we make it seven inches? Because it fits into a suit pocket,” he said. “Because we didn’t want it to need a separate case. Because we wanted something you could really put up and walk around. When you see people with other tablets, they would get them and sit down again. They weren’t really mobile devices.”

There are also tell-tale signs between a BlackBerry user and an Apple or other device user, Taylor added. “Most people would pick it up and start tapping it, but the BlackBerry users, it was all about their thumbs.”

That being said, Taylor promised the group of CIOs that RIM would be coming out with other versions of the PlayBook that take the feedback into account.

RIM also released a native PlayBook SDK enabling C/C++ application development on the BlackBerry Tablet OS to ease development for the device. Ramaswamy said there was a great need for more tablet-based apps.

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