Review: Android App Player in BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0

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Way back in mid-2011, we were told that the BlackBerry PlayBook was to support Android apps. With the 2.0 release, this promise has finally been kept (despite taking quite a while to arrive). The problem was that nobody really knew what this meant. Many thought that the PlayBook was going to support Android apps as they appeared on Android. After all, prior to the official release of OS 2.0, you could root the beta version, install Android and the Android Market, and just go nuts.

Well, it doesn’t work like that now. Android apps cannot run on the PlayBook (I felt it was necessary to put that in bold). You’re not going to see a separate store for Android apps because they’ve all been assimilated into App World. They are all BlackBerry PlayBook apps now. These apps run inside a special Android App Player called “QNXAppLauncher” that pops up when you launch an app. There is room for six of your most recently run apps. It is simple, and not the most stable, but it does work well enough. If you’ve installed the Honeycomb or Android launchers, you have to option to run apps within those operating systems as well, but it really doesn’t make a difference.

Swiping down from the top bezel a grey bar appears that shows you the most recent android apps you’ve used. But how do you navigate apps without a menu button, back button or home button? Well, RIM’s decided to screw buttons and stick with gesture swipes. The menu button is a swipe downwards from the top bezel. The back button is a diagonal swipe upwards and to the left from the bottom bezel. And the home button? Well, you don’t really need it since you can swipe upwards to minimize the app you’re in, just like a normal PlayBook app. The gestures seem to work very well. As with any PlayBook gesture, they become second nature faster than you think.

But don’t get too excited, not all of the Android apps have been ported to the PlayBook’s App World, since there obviously isn’t hundreds of thousands of apps there yet. We’ve learned that many of API functions used in Android will not be supported on the PlayBook, which is understandable. But as we’ve shown before at N4BB, many of the most popular Android apps can be easily side-loaded onto the PlayBook using an application called “DDPB” and downloading the PlayBook-packaged android apps at www.playbookbars.com.

Using this method, you can install Google Maps, Android Honeycomb UI, Android 2.2 UI, the Android 3D Gallery, Photoshop Express, the Android Calendar, the Android Browser, Pool Break Pro, Hanging with Friends, and many, MANY more apps can be installed on the PlayBook. Note that the PlayBook only runs “.bar” files, not android’s “.apk” files. All of these apps have been converted to PlayBook apps using RIM’s Android app conversion tool. They just happen to not be in the BlackBerry App World, (some for good reasons, as you can imagine).

If you’re side-loading apps, many games such as “Pool Break Pro” work beautifully. However, many do not. This is a consequence of not going through App World to get your apps. You’ll notice that I’m running Android 2.2 and Android Honeycomb on the PlayBook with these screenshots.

You’ll soon come to realise that RIM’s goal wasn’t to strictly bring Android apps over to the PlayBook. It was to grow App World by making it easy to turn Android apps into PlayBook apps. And I believe they have succeeded. There are over 10,000 apps in App World, which isn’t a lot compared to the huge stores of Apple and Google, but it is growing.

But there’s just something weird about all this. The implementation and perception of the PlayBook’s “Android support” are both unclear. What does “Android support” even mean? First of all, let’s talk about the implementation. The PlayBook technically doesn’t run Android apps; it runs apps that were converted from Android using a conversion tool. But for some reason, these apps have to run within a special Android App Player, even though they are PlayBook apps now. As far as perception goes, many have thought that you’d be getting a type of Android Marketplace on the PlayBook. But you’re actually just getting PlayBook apps that may have initially started as Android apps, but were easily tweaked to run on the PlayBook.

The “Android” part was just a means to an end. What you actually end up getting at the end of the day is just access to more apps. There’s nothing truly “Android” about them. I don’t know why RIM decided to keep running them separately within the QNXAppLauncher, but there has to be a reason. It’s not really a big deal, but you could argue that it detracts from the overall flow of the device a little bit. All you have to know is that there are much more apps in App World now, thanks to the relatively easy way to converted many Android apps to PlayBook apps, and you can side-load some converted Android apps if you feel up to the challenge.







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