RIM CEO offers unintelligible look at BlackBerry OS, PlayBook future
December 7th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
In an interview at the D: Dive Into Mobile conference, Mike Lazaridis co-CEO of Research In Motion, offered an astonishingly nonsensical set of answers about the future of the BlackBerry OS and RIM’s upcoming PlayBook tablet.
According to a live blog of the interview posted by Peter Kafka of MediaMemo, Lazaridis appeared on stage with a prototype PlayBook in hand. Engadget also reported its own version of the conversation, frequently noting that Lazaridis’ comments didn’t make any sense or were impossible to follow.
Lazaridis quickly switched between apps and video playback on the prototype tablet, saying “This is the way we like to work… it’s as easy as just sliding between the apps that you have loaded.”
Asked why the PlayBook was designed to be 7 inches, Lazaridis replied, “it’s just the perfect size,” before also acknowledging, “we have plans for different sizes.”
Apple chief executive Steve Jobs recently remarked that his company’s engineers had determined that the iPad’s 9.7 inch screen was essentially the minimum needed to deliver sophisticated apps sufficiently differentiated from smartphones, and said competitors would be forced to use 7 inch screens because they couldn’t match Apple in price using full size screens comparable to the iPad.
Lots of APIs for the PlayBook
In contrast, Apple purposely limited the development APIs available on the iPhone, making it only possible to deliver apps using either Cocoa Touch or HTML within the browser. The iOS does not support building apps using native POSIX APIs in the BSD kernel, nor from third party middleware platforms such as AIR, Flash, Java, or Silverlight.
That has done nothing to prevent developers from enthusiastically supporting the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, because the App Store supports native development with a sustainable business model. Other mobile platforms offer a variety of APIs, but have not attracted much development. The BlackBerry OS uses standard Java, but it has not developed an application base anywhere near that of Apple’s iOS.
The PlayBook’s release is “tracking first quarter” of 2011, Lazaridis said, before evading a series of questions from interviewers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher about the unclear future of RIM’s BlackBerry smartphones and the completely new architecture of the PlayBook.
RIM’s version of Gil Amelio
This essentially puts RIM in the position of Apple back in 1997, when its Classic Mac OS user base and developers were long overdue for a modern OS, and yet the new portfolio of OS technologies it had just acquired from NeXT were both not quite ready and too new and different for its existing users to quickly migrate toward. The case for waiting around to see if Apple could deliver, given its faltering position in the market at the time, was particularly difficult to defend given the momentum of Microsoft at the time.
Lazaridis’ answers to questions about how soon the new QNX-based PlayBook OS would make it down into BlackBerry smartphones also sounded a lot like Apple’s very confident but somewhat confused-sounding former chief executive Gil Amelio.
Lazaridis is perhaps best known his breathtaking comments this spring, which dismissed the importance of touchscreen phones, saying that while it’s important to give customers what they want, touch-only phones like the iPhone aren’t that popular. Lazaridis claimed that most of the people buying touchscreen phones were going back to phones with hardware QWERTY keyboards, like those that made RIM ‘famous.’
What’s the future of BlackBerry OS?
RIM has previously indicated that the OS being developed for the PlayBook would indeed become the basis for future BlackBerry smartphones. But when asked by Mossberg when this would happen, Lazaridis answered, “We’ve been seeing the future as a true mobile computing world. But we were always constrained by the tech. By the CPUs, power consumption. We worked within those limits to provide a great experience. It’s made us the largest company in Canada.”
That answer suggests that RIM’s new QNX-based OS draws too much power to be used in today’s smartphones. When pressed further by Mossberg, who asked, “But look, there’s a growing consensus that your [existing smartphone BlackBerry] OS is dated. When will this [new QNX-based PlayBook software] become the new OS?” Lazaridis replied, “By focusing on the tablet market, we see it as a way of freeing where smartphones can go.”
Asked by Swisher, “So the tablet is the phone?” Lazaridis answered, “No, the tablet is what mobile computing is all about. In cases where we want a high performance smartphone, the tablet is perfect for it. A lot of markets are still on 2G. Even in 3G markets, BlackBerry is in its own space and becomes very popular. What the PlayBook allows us to do is jump into the next stage of mobile. In the US the PlayBook is perfectly targeted.”
“I’m a little confused,” Mossberg said. “You said it will free the smartphone to focus on communication. You mean it will free you to not pay as much attention to apps and video and music on the phone?”
“What I’m saying is that with BackBerry 6 it’s a great multimedia platform. But the difference is, rather than being all things to all people, we can present the best platform for the application. Full web, real multitasking… very few people can do it properly. The point here is in that environment, you can use it differently. But a 7 inch screen is too big to be a phone.”
“So you’re saying that the strategy of Google and Apple — making the phone with video and audio, that’s not the right direction?” asked Swisher.
“We’re going to see different categories,” Lazaridis replied. “You’re going to see smartphones taking on multicore processing, you’re going to see powerful tablets…” at which point Mossberg asked, “You’re going to keep moving the platform forward on phones?”
“When we have multicore processing on phones, we’ll be using the PlayBook platform,” Lazaridis answered. “BlackBerry is a huge brand around the world, and we focused on our strategy for the next decade. It’s a multicore strategy.”
RIM waiting for multicore CPUs before upgrade its OS
“You don’t think Apple will have multicore CPUs?” Mossberg asked.
“Our competitors have taken a smartphone operating system and they’re trying to take it to a tablet computer,” Lazaridis answered. “We’re starting with a powerful OS and platform, as we get lower cost multicore environments coming, we’ll be able to provide the highest performance, the best reliability.”
Performance is, however, not an issue that existing iPad buyers have been complaining about. Further, it took Apple nearly six years to migrate its Mac platform to the new Mac OS X, despite its new core OS not being constrained by any need for a future generation of processor technology in order to perform adequately. That makes Lazaridis’ inability to indicate when RIM will be able to overhaul its long in the tooth BlackBerry OS a serious problem.
Asked later when the the PlayBook software would make it into RIM’s smartphones, Lazaridis repeated, “as soon as I have dual core baseband CPUs.”
The future of RIM is Adobe Flash
Asked by Swisher, “How do you rank Palm, Apple, Google?” Lazaridis answered. “I’m biased. The PlayBook platform is the most advanced in the world right now. What I find weird is that we’re all using [Adobe] Flash on our PCs, on our Macs — why wouldn’t we expect to see it on our tablets?”
“So that’s a differentiator,” Mossberg said. “But they’re selling those Flashless devices anyway,” an allusion to Apple’s iPad, and by extension all of the smartphones that don’t support Flash, which includes most of the world’s smartphones (apart from ten newer Android models), including existing BlackBerry models.
“But it’s really early,” Lazaridis said. Asked about the price of the PlayBook, Lazaridis only said it would be “very competitive.” Lazaridis did not make any suggestion that the PlayBook’s rumored prices, undercutting the larger iPad with a 7 inch 8GB model and matching it with a 7 inch 16GB version, were legitimate.
Why are you demoting my phone?
During a question and answer session, Lance Ulanoff of PC Magazine asked, “So I own a Torch, but it’s slow and has a low res screen. I’m confused, you’re creating a false dichotomy between the PlayBook and the smartphone. I don’t understand that. How can you deliver this phone without the best hardware available today? You seem to be looking to the tablet for that. But this is a tiny tablet. What is the strategy? Why are you demoting my phone?”
Lazaridis answered, “First of all, the Torch was designed to be a launch vehicle for BlackBerry 6. That argument could be used in reverse. In a world where Half VGA was high performance, the world had moved on to 1GHz CPUs and higher res displays… when you see how quickly that phone moves around, just imagine the next generation.”
“I don’t see that performance,” Ulanoff replied. “I see the lag.”
“Here’s another way of looking at it,” Lazaridis said. “If it’s 1GHz now, it’ll be 2GHz next year… we’re bypassing the arms race and going straight to multicore. We’re going to lead the way in an environment where we can scale properly without burning up the battery.”
Lazaridis did not explain how iOS devices, ranging from 3 year old iPhones to today’s iPad, have been able to perform adequately while leading other mobile devices in battery lifespan even without incorporating the multiple-core CPUs of the future that RIM finds essential to back-porting its tablet OS into its smartphone line.