Could BlackBerry learn from WebOS’ open source life support system?

You can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing the last days of the BlackBerry platform as an active and healthy member of the mobility ecosystem.

Gartner Inc. put out a report advising its clients be ready to move off the platform if need be (or just move off it now to avoid uncertainty) just last week. While some are reading the tea leaves – an initial bid from Fairfax Financial to take the firm private in a $4.7 billion deal – as evidence BlackBerry will continue in a form focused on business services, other signs portend a less cohesive future for the smartphone maker. Several other parties have become involved in talks with acquiring at least some portion of BlackBerry. A Bloomberg report today quotes an insider in the process as bizarre, and he even uses the phrase “carving knife” to describe what could happen next. So that doesn’t bode well.

Worst case scenario for BlackBerry users: support is yanked from the BlackBerry 10 operating system and ancillary services. For its part, BlackBerry is going on the record to say that won’t happen.

“It remains our top priority to continue serving all our customers and providing them the same industry-leading quality products and services they have come to expect from BlackBerry,” the Waterloo, Ont.-based company states in an e-mail to “We continue to manage more mobile devices than any other enterprise MDM [mobile device management] competitor.”

BlackBerry’s future – a tale of Palm’s past?

There is a precedent for suddenly cutting support from a beleaguered mobile platform. After HP acquired WebOS and Palm for $1.2 billion in April 2010, it launched a flagship tablet based on the sleek and modern platform in July 2011. The TouchPad was well-reviewed but it failed to capture consumer interest in a market flooded with Android tablets and iPads. In August, HP announced it was selling its entire Personal Systems Group and a fire sale on all remaining TouchPad tablets ensued. It looked like WebOS would go unsupported and without hope.

Until December, when HP announced it would release all WebOS source code under an open source licence. That meant the enthusiast developer community – and a niche of users had strongly embraced webOS as a superior mobile OS – could breathe life into the platform. Today, WebOS Ports releases new versions of the mobile platform that Palm built. Available in version Alpha2, the OS can be installed on existing WebOS hardware such as the TouchPad, or on open devices such as the Galaxy Nexus smartphone and Nexus 7 tablet. A YouTube video demonstrates WebOS running on Nexus 7:

“We’re not just continuing support,” says Tom King, the core developer and leader of the WebOS ports groups. “We’re actively developing it as well.”

Working with sister site WebOS Internals, which issues a webOS Survival Kit to diehard users and develops homebrew apps, enthusiast developers are keeping the platform alive for a niche group. The last market share numbers available for webOS showed it had fallen to 0.6 per cent in the second half of 2012. But on IRC a group of developers fills a chat room, with between 50 and 100 people logged in at any given time, King says. Twitter accounts for the open source movement are followed by more than 5,000 people.

“Those people who like that type of OS, they’re pretty loyal,” King says. “They enjoyed what it represented, it was quite innovative at the time.”

BlackBerry also has its diehard enthusiasts – namely Canadians. Canucks have always been more likely to buy their hometown smartphone brand than elsewhere in the world. BlackBerry has enjoyed good carrier support around the launch of its BlackBerry 10 devices here, and BlackBerry still owns about one-third of the smartphone market in Ontario according to a recent report by Media Technology Monitor. That’s a big step up compared to its slipping worldwide smartphone market share and paltry 4.3 per cent in the U.S. as of July, according to comScore.

Could CrackBerry enthusiasts keep the platform going?

So could a committed crew of CrackBerry Canucks possibly continue developing BlackBerry as an open source project if its official support were to end?

Well first of all, BlackBerry would have to be willing to release all of the source code of its proprietary OS to the world, for free. When asked, BlackBerry described its platform as “open” in the sense that developers can code in several different languages including Native C, C++ and Qt, HTML 5, Adobe AIR and Android Java. It also points to its active involvement in the WebKit Open Source community, the technology its browser is based upon.

“BlackBerry is also committed to being a responsible and active Open Source citizen,” the statement says. “The BlackBerry 10 platform gives developers more opportunities than any other platform.”

But that doesn’t really address the issue of whether it’d consider making the kernel code of its platform open source. Even if it did, King says the challenge would be the completely proprietary nature of the platform and uniqueness of the technology. WebOS developers had the benefit of making sense of that platform based on a Linux kernel.

“It’s a lot tougher to start from a closed and proprietary system,” he says. “It’s a lot steeper curve than a Linux-based OS… Even if they released all the code base tomorrow, it would take a long time to decipher it and understand it.”

So it could take at least three or four years before BlackBerry enthusiasts could get to the same level of functionality that WebOS programmers have now.

Still, it is conceivable BlackBerry and WebOS may share some element of similar fates. LG Electronics bought the licence to WebOS Feb. 25 and while keeping it open source, will use it as an embedded technology in Smart TVs and elsewhere.

At BlackBerry, the Ottawa-based embedded technology division QNX, acquired by the firm to base its BlackBerry 10 OS upon, is still growing in its share of embedded technology platforms such as the automotive sector.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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