RIM's PlayBook Has An Air About It

RIM recently showed its PlayBook running Flash-based content and announced a partnership with Adobe to make Air a preferred environment for developing applications and content. Here, Knowledge Center analyst Jack E. Gold discusses whether this is just a publicity play or if it's part of a broader plan by RIM to accelerate adoption of the PlayBook.


RIM's PlayBook is not even in the market yet, but the speculation about what it can and can't do is running rampant. Some even believed that it was all smoke and mirrors and the device never really existed (conspiracy theories abound on the Internet). But recently, at the Adobe MAX Conference, RIM's co-CEO Mike Lazaridis gave a demonstration of just what the device could do.

Besides a couple of interesting applications built for the device, the real news was that the device is fully compatible with the Adobe Air/Flash environment. And Lazaridis stated that the device actually used Air as part of its development environment to make the user interface and media capabilities work.

On the one hand, this is not much of a surprise given the pedigree of the device. It is based on QNX's Neutrino operating system. QNX, recently acquired by RIM, is one of the premiere implementers of embedded Flash capabilities, having done so for many devices in the auto and entertainment realms. So it has both large amounts of expertise and intimate knowledge of the Adobe technology.

Air is basically a rapid development environment utilizing Flash as a delivery mechanism allowing cross-platform support. So this is both a statement that RIM/QNX believes Flash is critical to its future and a bet that Flash is not going away any time soon (an idea with which we strongly agree). It's also a big "poke in the eye" at Apple's insistence that Adobe is irrelevant in the new Internet/browser world.

But the PlayBook's reliance on Air (although not exclusively, as RIM will support its Web Developer environment as well as HTML5 in its WebKit rendering engine) is a shrewd move on the part of RIM. Air gives RIM a large base of developers that can almost immediately develop content and applications for the PlayBook (RIM announced it now has an Air SDK for the device). It also means that Flash applications created originally for almost any Web-based devices-including Windows-based browsers as well as Flash applications for Android and even some for iOS now that Apple has relented on its total ban of Flash content-can play on the PlayBook.

This strategy says RIM is serious about being a major enabler of new Internet-based applications from the cloud for its smartphones and tablets (and any future devices based on OS 6 and beyond). The strategy allows developers to create a single application or other content with Air that will run compatibly on both RIM's tablet and smartphone devices (with perhaps some minor tweaking for screen and I/O differences). It will also run on competitors' devices as well.

This level of universality will be a real benefit to ISVs who are hesitant to have to build unique applications for tablets and smartphone devices, and should allow RIM to leverage the existing Flash ecosystem including many Android-oriented developers. It's also of benefit to users who will have an expanded array of content and applications they can utilize. Finally, for companies that see the future as a heterogeneous environment of device brands and characteristics, it allows applications and content to be created once and distributed to many different device types.

Bottom line: RIM has put a strategy in place to make its new PlayBook (and next-generation smartphones) cloud and Internet-friendly by supporting the major content and application delivery mechanisms and leveraging the developer community-including those oriented to competing platforms (particularly Android). This is a critical move necessary for the PlayBook's (and, ultimately, the BlackBerry smartphone's) success.

RIM's close cooperation with Adobe also signals that the developing relationship may grow deeper in the long term. ISVs and enterprises will see the full support for Flash (in addition to HTML5 and Java) as a way to deploy applications to the device without having to build out a new development environment. This will give the PlayBook an application and content boost it otherwise may not have had out of the gate.

Jack E. Gold is the founder and Principal Analyst at J. Gold Associates, an IT analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass., covering the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. Jack is a former VP of research services at the META Group. He has over 35 years experience in the computer and electronics industries. He can be reached at jack.gold@jgoldassociates.com.