Monthly Archives: March 2011

Here Come the Phones With Amazon’s AppStore Installed

Amazon’s AppStore for Android apps will be pre-loaded on its first phone in April, according to Cellular South, a regional U.S. mobile operator. The HTC Merge handset, a 3.8-inch device with slide-out QWERTY keyboard, is likely the first of many phones that will come with Amazon’s app market, saving customers from following a multi-step installation process. Amazon debuted its AppStore earlier in March and offers a free application each day for Android device owners.

It’s not surprising that Amazon is trying to work deals with both carriers and handset makers to get its AppStore pre-installed on phones. But the contrary scenario is intriguing: Amazon launched its mobile storefront without any news of pre-installation deals. Instead, the company announced the news on its website, along with up to eight steps for installation. While the process to install Amazon’s AppStore isn’t difficult, the company will have far more sales success if it can work deals to get the AppStore pre-installed and even featured, if possible.

Most Android phones already come with the Amazon MP3 store installed, making it an easy process to buy music directly on the handset. With the recent addition of Amazon’s Cloud Player functionality to the MP3 app, Android owners can stream music from the cloud to their phone as well. The key is getting such software on the handsets in advance, and Amazon knows this. Watch for more phones to include Amazon’s AppStore as a result.

Ironically, the best part of the new storefront may be on the web, and not on handsets at all. Just as I do each morning to see what MP3 album is on sale at Amazon, I’m now hitting the AppStore website for the free daily Android app. This week alone, I’ve installed several no-cost apps to my Android handset that would have set me back me at least $10 in total. Amazon also includes a unique “test drive” feature that simulates a virtual Android phone online so software can be tried before purchase.

But trying and buying software is only half of the fun. Once the AppStore is set up on a device, you can simply buy an app on Amazon’s website and the software will automatically install itself the next time you open the AppStore on the handset. This over-the-air delivery method rivals Google’s own Android Market web store and makes it easier to discover and install applications on Android phones.

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Microsoft Shares Windows Phone 7 Numbers (All But Sales, That Is)

Microsoft is stoking the Windows Phone 7 fire a few weeks prior to its annual developer conference with data on the platform. In a blog post, the company shared the number of active developers, total apps in the Marketplace and a breakdown of paid vs. free mobile apps, just to name a few data points. The one number missing, however, is no less important to developers and potential purchasers of handsets running Microsoft’s mobile platform: How many handsets that use Windows Phone 7 have actually sold?

Before digging deeper into the missing number and why it matters, here’s a select look at the data Microsoft is sharing in order to keep developer interest on the rise before the MIX 11 event on April 12:

  • 36,000 developers have paid Microsoft the $99 annual App Hub fee to allow their Windows Phone 7 apps to be in the Marketplace.
  • Windows Phone 7 handsets can choose from 11,500 software titles, of which nearly 7,500 are paid apps. By comparison, Apple and Google each offer more than 300,000.
  • The average Windows Phone 7 owner has installed 12 apps, far less than the number found on competing platforms, but considered “healthy demand” by Microsoft given that handsets launched only this past November.
  • Nearly half (44 percent) of all Marketplace apps leverage the Trial API, allowing customers to try before buying. This is a key advantage of the platform, in my opinion, and I expect this number to rise over time.
  • Only 40 percent of all developers registered with Microsoft for Windows Phone 7 apps have actually published an app.

One can’t fault Microsoft for touting these numbers. After all, the company has to convince developers that building apps for Windows Phone 7 handsets is a winning proposition. But the data also illustrates some sense of how far behind the platform is as compared to that of iOS and Android. The number of apps is growing at a nice clip, for example, but why have 21,600 of the 36,000 registered developers not yet published any software? There could be any number of reasons for that, but it’s easy for observers to jump to the conclusion that devs are waiting for proof of platform viability (in the form of handset sales figures) before fully committing to the costly and time-consuming development process.

Consumers shopping for smartphones are looking beyond core functionality (some of which still isn’t available on all Windows Phone 7 handsets) by examining which apps are available for the platform. This is precisely why smartphone market share numbers matter: Developers with limited resources are more likely to focus on developing apps for the largest audience possible. That means all things being equal, apps will typically launch first for platforms that are selling in large numbers. Right now, that means iOS and Android-based devices. It can become a vicious cycle for other competing mobile operating systems, as consumers may not adopt phone platforms due to a lack of top-notch software, and developers won’t build apps for platforms that aren’t selling well.

Which, again, begs the question: Just how many Windows Phone 7 handsets are on the market? If the number was promising, Microsoft would surely be sharing it with developers and the public in advance of the MIX 11 event. The data Microsoft is sharing shows the platform is heading in the right direction. Omitting handset sales figures, however, means developers simply don’t know how fast or slow the platform is growing, and WP7 development will be a hard sell for many without that information.

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HP Shifts Printing Away From PCs Via Google Cloud Print

When Google introduced its Cloud Print solution last year, consumers and device makers were left with more questions than answers. Fast forward to today and Google’s cloud printing solution gets less foggy: HP’s ePrint-enabled printers now support Cloud Print. Printouts from a smartphone, computer or ChromeOS netbook can be sent to these web-connected printers through supported Google apps now, and third-party software in the future.

The new printing support shows how the web continues to change the paradigm of traditional computing. Instead of printers that are effectively chained to a single device or shared on a local wired or wireless network, the lowly, utilitarian printer is now web connected. Evidence of that lies within the method used by HP to link the ePrint devices to Google Docs and Gmail: consumers simply attach the printer’s unique email address to their Google account to use Cloud Print services. Once the link is made, documents or email can be printed out through a mobile broadband or wired web connection from practically anywhere.

Last year, I tried to make sense of this paradigm shift and how it relates to the declining need of the PC we’ve relied upon for years:

Essentially, Google is attempting to remove the computer from the middle of the print equation. In today’s world, we use an application to send a print job to the print server running on our computer. That software manages the task by communicating through a driver (more software) to the physical hardware of the printer. In the Google Cloud Print solution, the computer and accompanying print server software go away and are replaced by the cloud. Google handles the print job and communicates directly with a cloud-aware printer — these don’t exist yet, which is why I said the solution isn’t implemented yet.

Now that the cloud-aware printers I mentioned are available, the solution is here, although in a limited fashion because it will take time for apps to enable cloud printing functionality. Up to now, there really wasn’t much point for that development effort, but with HP’s support, that’s sure to change. And maybe the best part of all this from a consumer standpoint — at least in theory — is not only the diminishing need for a computer to print, but more importantly, the extinction of installing or updating print drivers and other software setup challenges.

There’s another relevent event that happened right about the time that Google introduced Cloud Print last April: HP’s $1.2 billion purchase of Palm. We haven’t yet seen many tangible product benefits as the result of HP’s big spend to get into the mobile space, but that should be changing soon due to an updated webOS platform and a new HP tablet based on the operating system. When HP introduced the TouchPad slate, it noted that it would have wireless print capabilities that will leverage the ePrint devices.

With both cloud printing and mobile devices that can use such functionality, it’s notable to see a traditional computer maker — the biggest in the world, in fact — moving away from the very computing hardware that has helped grow the company.  I can’t think of a better example of this shift to mobile, but if I can find one, I’ll shoot it to a printer from my smartphone.

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ASUS Eee Pad Launches in UK Cheaper Than iPad 2

ASUS today announced availability and pricing for its Eee Pad Transformer, an Android Honeycomb tablet that has an optional keyboard dock. SlashGear reports the tablet will arrive in the U.K. on April 6 with pre-orders now underway for the 16 GB Wi-Fi model priced at £379 ($608 USD), which compares favorably to a similar iPad 2 model at £399. Adding the keyboard dock, which boosts device life to up to 16 hours thanks to an integrated battery, will cost £50 extra. Users can also opt for a 32 GB model at £429, an even greater discount from the £479 32 GB iPad 2.

Sales of the Eee Pad Transformer will be interesting to watch, because many consider pricing of the first Honeycomb tablet, Motorola’s Xoom, to be too high. Part of the reason buyers feel that way is that Xoom originally launched with only a 3G model available, with 32 GB of storage capacity for $799. Some compared that to Apple’s 16 GB Wi-Fi model at $499, because both models represented entry points into each company’s tablet line. Motorola has since announced a 32 GB Wi-Fi model for $599.

So the new Eee is a closer challenger to Apple’s iPad, at least when looking solely at specifications, even though the tablet experience is arguably more important than a checklist of hardware. For those interested, here’s a sample of the Eee Pad Transformer specs:

  • 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor
  • 10.1-inch multitouch IPS display with 1280 x 800 resolution and Gorilla Glass
  • 9.5 hour battery life alone, 16 hours with dock
  • 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, GPS, gyroscope, memory card reader, HDMI output
  • 5-megapixel rear camera, 1.2-megapixel front camera
  • Dimensions of 271 x 177 x 12.98mm and weight of 680 grams

In the face of a limited number of apps specifically designed for Honeycomb, ASUS is attempting to make the device stand out through unique hardware, software and services.

The obvious hardware difference is the full-sized keyboard with battery that functions as a dock. In terms of software, ASUS includes a wireless media streaming application, a library title to consolidate digital reading content, and a secure remote access app to control Windows, Macs or other Android devices. Additionally, ASUS is including unlimited web storage through the pre-installed MyCloud software.

Honeycomb tablets may have a long road ahead when competing against the second iteration of Apple’s iPad and supporting ecosystem, but at least with the new ASUS tablet, we’ll get a better idea of where Google-based tablets are headed.

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App Store Smarts, Not Apps, May Be the Better Investment

Appia, a white-label mobile application marketplace, announced $10 million in funding from Venrock on Wedneday. This third round brings the total funding for Appia, which recently re-branded with a new name, to $28.5 million. In addition to the third round of funding, Dev Khare, VP at Venrock, is joining Appia’s board of directors. Prior investors include Trident Ventures, the BlackBerry Partners Fund, and Eric Schmidt’s Tomorrow Ventures.

Those not familiar with Appia may recognize it under a prior name. The company spun out of Motricity in 2008, launching as the PocketGear mobile app store for various smartphone platform owners but also as an app store backend. In 2009, the company began powering Samsung’s Widget Store and a year later, purchased mobile app store Handango, which was founded in 1999. And just last month, the company re-branded itself as Appia with a focus on providing software for to help mobile operators build out app stores. Today, Appia powers more than 40 partner storefronts (including Verizon Wireless, ATT, T-Mobile and Opera) reaching an audience of 200 million mobile subscribers.

The funding takes on particular significance in light of recent investments made in single applications: $41 million to back the new Color app, for example, is a big basket of dollars for an individual app. Investing millions in the services that power multiple app stores for numerous network operators and other mobile partners is a far less risky play, considering our app addiction is growing by leaps and bounds. While stat counters appear focused on the number of apps and investors look for killer apps, a growing number of little app store solutions could be the better bet.

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Given Choice, Will You Install Firefox for Android?

After several beta releases, Mozilla today launched a mobile version of its Firefox web browser for phones that run either the Android or Maemo operating systems. Firefox Mobile 4 brings tabbed browsing, bookmarks, add-ons and more to handsets while also, according to Mozilla’s Brad Lassey, boosting performance up to three times over the stock Google browser. Unlike the Android browser, however, the new Firefox Mobile 4 doesn’t support Adobe Flash Player.

I spent some hands-on time with Firefox Mobile 4 on an Android phone and it works as advertised. Running the SunSpider benchmark test confirmed that the browser is faster when it comes to JavaScript: Mozilla yielded a result of 2874.9 milliseconds, which compares favorably to the 6349.6 milliseconds benchmark result in the native Android browser (a lower number is better). A nifty save-to-PDF feature captures web pages for offline use; handy, Mozilla says for saving directions or an airplane boarding pass. And of course, there are the features that arguably made Firefox for the desktop so popular: the ability to add extensions and customize the browser with themes.

While the addition of Firefox Mobile to the Android Market is great in terms of choice, I’m not sold that many Android owners will actually make the change. The popular Dolphin Browser HD that I’ve recommended before has been around for months and mimics many of the same features found in the new Firefox client. It also supports Adobe Flash for those that want it. Even so, according to the Android Market, Dolphin has been downloaded between one and five million times. That’s a large number for sure, but it pales in comparison to the total number of Android devices in the market. Last year alone, for example, an estimated 67.2 million Android smartphones were sold, according to the Gartner research group. In Mozilla’s favor is that Dolphin has enjoyed millions of downloads with little brand recognition; Mozilla touting the Firefox name ought to do better.

Chances are that most folks who install the Firefox Mobile browser are those that are already using Firefox on the desktop because of the Firefox Sync feature. With it, all passwords, bookmarks, browsing history and even open tabs are synchronized between desktop and handset. By comparison, Google’s Android browser doesn’t yet sync this type of data, although there is a Chrome-to-phone extension to shoot a website from desktop to mobile. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google add this functionality in the future to Android as its Chrome browser is already synching some similar data across desktops. Plus the Honeycomb powered Motorola Xoom already syncs bookmarks with Chrome on the desktop.

For now, however, those that prefer Firefox on the desktop are the most likely candidates to install the mobile browser. And in turn, that could boost the market share of Firefox users, which has been declining of late — even as those using Google Chrome is on the rise, per this data I pulled from the W3Counter site today.

Over the past two year period, Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer share have both dropped while use of Google’s Chrome browser is rising faster than its peers. One way for Mozilla to counter is through the mobile browser, which, when paired with Firefox syncing on the desktop, offers a competitive advantage. But if Google adds similar functionality between Chrome and the stock Android browser, the edge is negated.

The choice of browser is as personal a preference as choice of clothes for the day, however, so Mozilla is sure to see a number of Android owners try Firefox Mobile; especially while it remains faster than the stock browser and retains other key differences. Mozilla will have to work hard to get the word out however: few new Android handset owners will likely even look for alternative browsers. I’m fine with stock browser and the Dolphin Browser HD on my devices, but if you use Android, check in on our poll and tell us if you’re going to use Firefox Mobile 4 on your phone or tablet.

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Review: Meet The Facebook Phone, INQ Cloud Touch

There has been a lot of speculation about a Facebook phone, but we still don’t know what it quite looks like. However, a new device from INQ, a London-based phone maker, dubbed INQ Cloud Touch, shows the possibilities of a Facebook phone, something I wrote about last year.

For the past week, I have been using the phone, which takes its inspiration from the first version of the iPhone. It is hard to tell that this handsome featherweight smartphone is based on Google’s Android operating system. Your first, and most of the important, interactions on the phone are with Facebook services, though there is nothing preventing you from using the Android applications.

Google, Android Facebook: Oh My!

The phone, which is GSM/WCDMA, is able to work across the planet and I tested it on the T-Mobile USA network. There were hardly any dropped calls and the call quality was pretty solid – I am guessing that it is thanks to both the radio engineering and the network. Given how slow the 3G networks are in the US, I decided to use Wi-Fi as my primary Internet connection on this device, which was perfect when using some of my favorite Android OS apps such as Amazon Kindle, Nimbuzz, Evernote and Dropbox. You can access the Google Apps’ marketplace just as quickly as you can sign-in to your Google account, and you can access various Google services including Google Voice like you would on any normal Android device. However, this phone is for Facebook lovers.

So, let’s talk about the Facebook experience. After booting up the phone, you come to the welcome screen and all you need to do is enter your Facebook login. The phone populates your address book (you do need to select what kind of syncing you want to do) and logs you into Facebook’s messaging and other services.

Single Sign-On Rocks

The single sign-on removes the need for you to individually sign-in for every Android app – and there is a ton of those — that uses Facebook Connect. As an end customer, this single sign-on is going to make the phone inherently useful. You can check-in to places from the home screen, you can send messages from the home screen, and you can use your calendar from the home screen. One click access to the camera allows you to upload photos directly to Facebook photos.

They are all shown as separate apps, leveraging the recent consumer behavior of using dedicated apps for specific functions. I would argue that if you are a Facebook addict, then you pretty much don’t have to leave the home screen.

It seems INQ got access to an extended/new Facebook Mobile API, which allows it to do some amazing things with the Facebook data. INQ’s phone has borrowed a visual feed metaphor from apps like Flipboard and now allows you to directly see elements such as YouTube videos and photos right on the home screen. After using the Facebook visual feed for six days, I find the web-version of Facebook downright dowdy, slow and well, not fun.

Facebook + Spotify + Android = Fun

As someone who has trial access to Spotify, I have thoroughly enjoyed the integration of Spotify, Facebook and this phone. So if Shak (Spotify’s super evangelist) shares a song with me on Facebook, I can now click on the link and it plays in the Spotify app, which incidentally is fully integrated into the INQ phone. What does that mean for you? Fewer clicks and your home screen becomes the launch pad for your Facebook life as most apps are now cross-linked with each other.

However, here’s the app that is going to blow your mind: the People App. Think of your friends as featured on always updating baseball card. INQ says they got Facebook to extend their social graph API and then are using behind-the-scenes wizardry to suggest top 5/10/20 friends you interact most with.

This is a perfect way for one to manage the friend circle and get rid of some of the noise in your social graph. I am addicted and I want this feature on a desktop app.

The company spokesperson explained that all the Facebook services are based off APIs and Facebook for Android App, because when FB updates their app, the company can take advantage of it right away.

What do I think?

There is a lot to like about INQ Cloud Touch – from the packaging to all the accessories and even set-up handbook are top notch, colorful, and are bursting with energy. The phone itself is light and the touch screen is very responsive.

However, the device at times felt underpowered and sluggish, mostly because it was doing too many things at the same time on a puny processor (Qualcomm 7227 chipset, 600MHz) limited onboard memory (4 MB).

I found it ran out of power after a few hours – between 3 and 4 – when I turned on Wi-Fi and was using the Spotify service in tandem with other mobile apps.  The Facebook app kept crashing on the test device, which at times soured me on the experience.

The toughest challenge for me personally was that I found the home screen a tad too busy. There are just too many calls to action, which are kind of contrary to the experience you get on an iPhone. I bet folks who are half my age are going to have no such problems and probably would appreciate busyness.

That said, it stands out in a sea of Android phones that are hard to distinguish and if you love Facebook and want to live inside the social network, this is the smart phone for you.

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In-App Billing Can Boost Android Revenues More Than You Think

On Tuesday, Google launched a long-awaited in-app billing feature for developers who can now add extra purchases in Android applications. Digital goods such as content downloads, additional game levels, virtual currency and other items can now be sold within a software title. Following the same model as Apple, which implemented such purchases in iOS 3.0 back in June 2009, Google will earn a 30-percent cut of in-app purchases.

The new purchase model could be a boon for Android developers, many of whom haven’t yet seen the financial successes others have found in selling software for Apple’s iOS devices. Although Google hasn’t released a dollar amount for revenue paid out to developers, Apple has and it’s a big number: $2 billion as of earlier this month. This highlights a very different mentality and approach in the two competing mobile platforms.

Google’s main thrust to this point has been to get more devices in user’s hands so it can continue expanding an audience for targeted advertising. Android developers can earn money through such ads, as well as software purchases, but it’s clear Google’s focus has long been on the ad model. Even now that Android is nearly 2.5 years old, software can only be purchased in the Android Market in 32 countries, though free downloads are available in many more areas.

Android developers are already limited by the Android Market availability, but there’s another challenge: an “Android is free” mentality that comes with the Google brand. Look at Google’s most used services today, and you’ll see the issue. Search, email, video chat, online document editing and management: All are free, at least in terms of a financial cost to users. It’s a valid argument that consumers are paying Google in the form of personal data and preferences, effectively subsidizing these services with information collected by Google. But from the perspective of customer wallets, Google services cost nothing to most, who then equate that with Android software.

The new in-app billing, available for apps that run on Android 1.6 or better (which is effectively all devices at this point) does bring hope to developers and could change the perception that Android is free. A January report from app analytics firm Distimo noted that in 2010, 49 percent of iPhone app revenue came from in-app purchases. Even better, the data suggests in-app sales for free apps can be greater than those generated in paid apps. Distimo’s research showed free apps generated 34 percent of in-app revenues vs 15 percent of similar purchases in paid apps.

That bodes well for Android developers, who up to now could only sell apps in limited markets to an audience that considers Android to be a free alternative to other platforms. It will take time for programmers to add the new in-app billing support, but once they do, the right digital add-ons could yield more dollars to existing apps and possibly even woo some iOS devs to port successful titles to Google’s mobile platform.

Will Google app revenue payouts rival Apple’s billions? Not likely, at least not in the short term. But the new in-app billing functionality offers Android developers a chance at earning more money, something many have been patiently waiting for.

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ASUS Eee Pad Launches in UK Cheaper than iPad 2

ASUS today announced availability and pricing for its Eee Pad Transformer, an Android Honeycomb tablet that has an optional keyboard dock. SlashGear reports the tablet will arrive in the UK on April 6 with pre-orders now underway for the 16 GB Wi-Fi model priced at £379 ($608 US), which compares favorably to a similar iPad 2 model at £399 ($640 US). Adding the keyboard dock, which boosts device life to up to 16 hours thanks to an integrated battery, will cost £50 ($80 US) extra. Users can also opt for a 32 GB model at £429 ($689 US), an even greater discount from the £479 ($769 US) 32 GB iPad 2.

Sales of the Eee Pad Transformer will be interesting to watch because many consider pricing of the first Honeycomb tablet, Motorola’s Xoom, to be too high. Part of the reason buyers feel that way is that Xoom originally launched with only a 3G model available, with 32 GB of storage capacity at $799. Some compared that to Apple’s 16 GB Wi-Fi model at $499 because both models represented entry points into each company’s tablet line. Motorola has since announced a 32 GB Wi-Fi model for $599.

So the new Eee is a closer challenger to Apple’s iPad, at least when looking solely at specifications, even though the tablet experience is arguably more important than a checklist of hardware. For those interested, here’s a sample of the Eee Pad Transformer specs:

  • 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor
  • 10.1-inch multitouch IPS display with 1280 x 800 resolution and Gorilla Glass
  • 9.5 hour battery life alone, 16 hours with dock
  • 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, GPS, gyroscope, memory card reader, HDMI output
  • 5 megapixel rear camera, 1.2 megapixel front camera
  • Dimensions of 271 x 177 x 12.98mm and weight of 680 grams

In the face of a limited number of apps specifically designed for Honeycomb, ASUS is attempting to make the device standout through unique hardware, software and services.

The obvious hardware difference is the full-sized keyboard with battery that functions as a dock. In terms of software, ASUS includes a wireless media streaming application, a library title to consolidate digital reading content, and a secure remote access app to control Windows, Macs or other Android devices. Additionally, ASUS is including unlimited web storage through the pre-installed MyCloud software.

Honeycomb tablets may have a long road ahead when competing against the second iteration of Apple’s iPad and supporting ecosystem, but at least with the new ASUS tablet, we’ll get a better idea of where Google-based tablets are headed.

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QNX, Not the PlayBook, Is the Key to RIM’s Future

Despite revenues that will likely fall short of expectations this quarter, plenty of speculation remains about whether Research in Motion’s forthcoming PlayBook can help shore up the company’s waning relevance in the world of mobile. The key, however, to stay in the race against Apple and Google isn’t hardware, but rather, RIM’s new QNX operating system.

Right now, RIM’s biggest vulnerability is an aging BlackBerry OS that simply is inferior in many ways to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android systems. BlackBerry’s superior security technology aside, the OS doesn’t offer the easy navigation and multimedia support that has fueled the popularity of Android and iOS. Those are shortcomings RIM promised to address last year with the release of the Torch, the first handset to run BlackBerry 6. But as my colleague Kevin C. Tofel noted in August, the handset was an evolution rather than a revolution. In other words, it’s apparent that there is only so much upgrading RIM can do with BlackBerry. That helps explain why Android recently surpassed BlackBerry’s U.S. market share, according to Nielsen.

There’s a lot to like about QNX, though, which powers the PlayBook and is expected to come to RIM handsets later this year. It can enable full Flash and HTML5 capabilities, and it can deliver the kind of rich, immersive experiences that consumers have grown to expect on Android and iOS. It offers real 3-D graphics and optimized power, and its scalability will enable RIM to build a lineup of devices based on the OS, just as Apple is doing with iOS. RIM will surely need to iron out some wrinkles as QNX comes to mobile phones, but the platform shows tremendous promise.

The company still faces a few important challenges, of course, including luring developers to its platform and coming up with a slick new handset or two. But if RIM is still a major player in mobile a few years from now, it will be because of QNX and its supporting ecosystem, not a new piece of hardware. For more thoughts on what QNX means for RIM, please see my weekly column at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image source: Flickr user Brenda-Starr.

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