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QNX microkernel lives

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BlackBerry DevCon The BlackBerry Playbook – RIM's answer to the Apple iPad — is sure to have a certain cachet among aging techies. The 7-inch tablet is based on QNX, the UNIX-esque microkernel operating system that famously booted — graphical user interface, networking, and all — from a single 1.44MB floppy drive.

RIM acquired QNX this past April, and today as RIM unveiled its new tablet in San Francisco, QNX co-founder Dan Dodge indicated the outfit has been working on the BlackBerry Tablet OS for at least a year.

Dodge first cooked up his real-time OS with college pal Gordon Bell (not that Gordon Bell) in the early 1980s. The first version ran on the Intel 8088. Since then, it's been ported to countless other platforms, including x86, MIPS, PowerPC, ARM, StrongARM, and XScale.

QNX is a POSIX (Portable Operating System Interface) operating system, meaning it shares the same system APIs as Linux, Apple OS X, and other UNIX-based OSes. "In a world of large open source projects like WebKit," Dodge said, "this is incredibly important to reduce the cost of porting and keeping those ports up to date.".

But QNX itself is no longer open. After RIM acquired Dodge's outfit from Harman International Industries in April, it promptly closed the source code. Today, RIM made quite a bit of noise about open code — among other things, it open sourced its new WebWorks web-based application development kit — but it gave no indication that it will reverse course on the QNX source.

Developers can use WebWorks to develop applications for the PlayBook in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and RIM will release a native SDK for the tablet OS in the coming weeks. The kit will embrace OpenGL and Adobe AIR, and Dodge said that the company is at work on a "next generation" Java VM. This will allow developers to move their existing BlackBerry applications onto the tablet.

The BlackBerry Tablet OS is "built upon" the QNX's Neutrino microkernel architecture, which first arrived in 2001. On the inaugural PlayBook, it will run in tandem with a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor. "The beauty of QNX is more than skin deep, more than POSIX in particular," Dodge said. "We talked about multi-core, symmetric processing. We designed that in from day one."

The OS also does distributed multiprocessing. QNX has been used in "production" systems using four cores, eight cores, sixteen cores, and thirty-two cores. "We have an architecture that is future-ready and future-proof," Dodge boasted.

"It's amazing," said RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, a man who enjoys hyperbole almost as much as Dan Dodge.

Today, QNX is used in countless embedded systems, from networking hardware to power-grid gear, medical devices, military hardware, and automobiles. Cisco's routers, for instance, run QNX, using both symmetrical and distributed multiprocessing. GE runs the OS on power-grid turbines. And Dodge pointed out that because of its use in the military, QNX offers Common Criteria EAL 4+ security.

At one point, Lazaridis said that when he first met Dodge, RIM was "really excited about what [QNX] was doing with cars. We saw cars as the ultimate BlackBerries." And Dodge replied quickly: "And they're certainly going to be." Over 200 automobile models currently use QNX, according to RIM.

"We have taken the experience we have gained from all these industries and we have focused it, and over the past year we have built the BlackBerry Tablet OS to embody and encompass all this," Dodge said. "It is going to enable a new world of computing you can hold in the palm of your hand."

Floppy disk not required. ®

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