Why BlackBerries Won’t Run On Anything Else

RIM’s biggest challenge right now is clearly that patent suit from NTP, but I had another question for the company’s co-CEO Mike Lazaridis when I met up with him again last week – not least because he said he couldn’t talk about the case while it’s ongoing.

My question was whether we might one day see a BlackBerry running an operating system other than the current BlackBerry OS that powers the little gizmos. Well, Lazaridis insisted that the company has no plans to develop BlackBerry devices that run either the Microsoft Windows Mobile or Symbian operating systems. Surprise, surprise.

There has been speculation as to whether or not RIM would consider such a move, following Palm’s announcement in late September that it will support Windows Mobile on a forthcoming Treo device, though it will continue to support the Palm OS on other devices. It has also been rumored that mobile giant Vodafone is thinking about shipping a version of the HTC Tornado running Windows Mobile.

Symbian OS meanwhile – shepherded by a consortium of handset manufacturers – is seeing terrific growth. Symbian reported a 131% increase in the number of devices shipping with the Symbian OS in the third quarter of this year: between July and September a total of 8.54 million units running Symbian OS were shipped by a total of eight licensees.

But none of that is going to change RIM’s mind. Lazaridis assured me the company has “no plans” to put Windows Mobile or Symbian under the covers of any of its BlackBerry devices.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, as RIM is doing rather nicely with its own BlackBerry OS so far. Despite only the day before yesterday announcing that subscriber additions are lagging its forecasts slightly, RIM is still flying – it expects third-quarter revenue in the range of $540m to $570m, at least 48% up on last year’s level.

RIM’s BlackBerry OS is Java-based. Indeed when a BlackBerry user turns on their device, the first thing that happens is a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) on the BlackBerry loads an Application Manager – a specialized Java application that manages all Java applications on the handheld, and acts as the central dispatcher of operating system events for other Java applications.

According to Lazaridis, there are several advantages with sticking to the Java-based BlackBerry OS: “Running on Java is quite unique; it’s a full Java operating system which means it is more open, it gives our developers choice, and also Java goes the extra mile for security and reliability.”

For Lazaridis, the security implications of running Java under the BlackBerry’s skin are key: “The JVM means no software can take control of the hardware – it protects users from Trojans and other malicious code. Then with everything signed using PKI [public key infrastructure] you can be sure that the code loaded on the device is the code that should be loaded on the device.”

The other advantage of running a Java-based operating system is that developers looking to write applications for BlackBerry devices can use the BlackBerry Java Development Environment (JDE). Because BlackBerry devices include an integrated web browser that supports standard mark-up and scripting languages, developers can also draw on their existing web development skills and use programming models such as HTML, .NET ASP, or Java/JSP.

But what of one of Palm’s arguments for supporting the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system – that some enterprises it wants to sell to have a Microsoft-only attitude? Lazaridis can see the point: “We will support other operating systems via the BlackBerry Connect and BlackBerry Built-In programs,” he said, “but not on our BlackBerry devices.”

BlackBerry Built-In is where a device manufacturer licenses a number of RIM’s applications, such as BlackBerry Email, BlackBerry Calendar, and BlackBerry Contacts. Meanwhile there are already BlackBerry Connect schemes for Symbian, Windows Mobile and Palm OS. BlackBerry Connect enables other device manufacturers to use RIM’s “push” technology to automatically deliver email and other data to users, even though the underlying operating system is not BlackBerry OS.

So users get the ability to connect with email and other applications and still get the functionality of the Symbian, Windows Mobile or Palm operating systems under the covers – something they don’t get if they buy a BlackBerry from RIM itself, which runs BlackBerry OS. And according to Lazaridis, that’s the way it’s going to stay.

It seems unlike Palm, RIM is determined to have full control of the entire stack. The question is, with the legal situation hanging over RIM and increasing commoditisation of mobile device software, will RIM maintain its superb sales momentum or ultimately, make as much of a dent in the mobilde device space as Apple made to the PC space with the iMac (i.e. not much) – because Apple is the other classic example of a company that likes to own the whole stack.

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