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Can QNX Save RIM?

It has been hard to look at any tech news websites recently and not see articles questioning the future of RIM. Its stock price has dropped over 50% so far this year and it has consistently lost market share over recent quarters as more smartphone users have opted for iPhones and Android devices.

It also always seems somewhat strange reading articles that pit the QNX OS (apparently more marketable than Neutrino?) as a new creation capable saving RIM’s smartphone business. Well, for one, QNX certainly isn’t new. QNX is actually one of the well established leaders in the embedded OS marketplace, with deployments across a wide variety of systems and devices that range from telecommunication infrastructure, to medical devices, to industrial automation to automotive infotainment stacks.

So while the first sighting of QNX in RIM clothing came via their recently released Playbook, the company has also promised a generation of “superphones” on the horizon that will be powered by the embedded OS. Despite some glitches and questions regarding the software feature set of the initial Playbook at launch, its functionality and performance were largely lauded in reviews.

Regardless of its Playbook implementation successes or failures, QNX’s viability as a phone OS may ultimately decide the fate of RIM (in its current instantiation), so it is worth considering a few factors:

  1. Before RIM, there were no QNX Neutrino based phones. This is not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps just a function of QNX’s own focus and partner ecosystem, but it nevertheless opens a question of whether there may be any expertise gaps in QNX’s (still run as an independent subsidiary) internal resources.
  2. Multicore chips are coming. In fact, there are already some multicore ARM-based chips shipping in phones today (their lack of availability had been tagged by RIM as one of the contributors to the delay in the release of a QNX OS for their phones). This is one area where RIM may have a leg up on the competition. QNX was one of the early leaders in providing a symmetric multiprocessing OS for embedded systems and also spearheaded the use of task/processor affinity (Bound Multiprocessing as QNX calls it) in these deployments. One downside here is that much of its earliest work was done to support x86 systems, not ARM chips as you would find in phones (sorry Intel, Atoms are just not there yet).
  3. If you build it, they don’t always come. QNX alone cannot solve the ecosystem problem. We have already seen how a well-reviewed OS does not necessarily translate to mobile phone market share gains with Palm’s release of webOS. Blackberry’s app store, as it stands, pales in comparison to the breadth and depth of Apple’s and Android’s. Also, it is yet to be seen how willing consumers will be to accept any performance hits associated with running Android apps over a QNX hosted virtual machine.

One place where RIM could differentiate themselves, however, is by building up a branded ecosystem in other device types. Google is (slowly) trying to push Android into other consumer device types. When RIM first announced their intent to acquire QNX, they depicted a vision of “intelligent peripherals” that would reshape their customers’ experiences, beyond the phone. QNX’s lineage of success in many of these other embedded systems may, in fact, provide RIM with the footing to provide a more robust experience in some of these other devices than possible with an OS originally pigeon-holed for mobile phones.

Could the promise of this experience and breadth of devices help attract developers to a phone platform that has lost some of its cachet? In a market that has elevated Android to the leading OS in less than three years it is certainly possible.

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