How RIM Can Save Itself

Last Updated Aug 20, 2010 5:03 PM EDT

RIM's (RIMM) rumored tablet will supposedly not run on the BlackBerry operating system that powers the company's phones. Instead, it will use QNX, an operating system designed by QNX Software Systems, a company RIM bought in April.

Bloomberg broke the story, which said seemed to indicate that the reason for making the break was an existing market of applications. However, I think that's only a minor factor. The real story is the same strategy currently driving HP (HPQ) -- the dream of having intelligent devices that will talk to each other, creating a compelling reason to stay within the webOS environment it acquired with Palm. The difference is that, in the case of QNX, the extended market already exists.

Around since the early 1980s, QNX has been one of the standard choices for embedded operating systems, meaning the lightweight packages that run the chips inside of all sorts of products. It's in cars, mining equipment, routers, industrial controls, telecommunications equipment, and building management systems, to name a few application areas. Some of the brand names that incorporate QNX include Cisco (CSCO), GE (GE), BMW, Audi, Acura, GM OnStar, and Porsche. The list doesn't even include all the car manufacturers that use QNX.

The software has been around so long and used so widely that RIM bought a huge potential market with QNX. There's no reason that it would have to limit itself to QNX tablets. The company could merge the improved user interface from BlackBerry and the guts of QNX to create devices that could talk to almost anything.

HP wants to put webOS into printers so phones can send documents to print? Big deal. The only mobile operating system company I can think of that has a similar established base of embedded operating system users is ... Microsoft (MSFT). Yes, the company that has blown it time and again in mobile is one of the few that could probably manage some pretty slick integrations between mobile phones, tablets, and all manner of commercial and consumer applications. Plus, it has licensed ARM's chip architecture, so let's not be too sure that it would focus only on smartphone or tablet chips.

Apple (AAPL)? It doesn't have a chance in this space. Steve Jobs is too controlling and has nothing to offer all those industries. The best they will be able to do in the future is use an iOS-based television service to also run compatible appliances. But who's going to sign up to be beholden to Apple?

Google has a slightly better chance, in that it makes Android available for essentially embedded uses. But most of the adoption is in the consumer client space -- either smartphones, tablets, or set-top boxes. You don't find Android running an automobile's systems, and given the development lead time at car companies, it would take three to five years for initial uses to come on line.

I don't think this gives RIM an automatic improvement in its prospects, but, played right, it could be an enormous advantage.


Truck image: user KonArt, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.