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 (s rimm) biggest vulnerability is an aging BlackBerry OS that simply is inferior in many ways to Apple’s iOS (s aapl) and Google’s Android (s goog) 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.