They say Real-Time Systems is one of the most difficult computer science courses in North America.
The fourth-year class at the University of Waterloo centres on a single project. Students are given a computer chip and are basically expected to design a small computer operating system from scratch. It is loosely analogous to giving a student an engine and asking them to build a small car around it.
University lore has it that the class requires so much programming, the enrolled student's parents don't bother learning their children's home phone numbers - they just call the university computer lab telephone instead.
But as difficult as the course is, some students excel at it. About 30 years ago, two undergrads, Gordon Bell and Dan Dodge, believed the operating system they'd designed for the class was so good, they could make a business out of it. The duo decided to move to Kanata. There, they started a company called Quantum Software Systems, which is now called QNX.
At around the same time, another University of Waterloo student was displaying a prodigious talent for computer science, one that would earn him a $500,000 contract to develop a computer control system for General Motors. Mike Lazaridis would take that money and use it to start up a company called Research In Motion . Eventually, he would focus the company's research on wireless data transmission.
At the heart of most operating systems is something called a kernel, which handles the most important tasks, such as assigning processing power and memory space to various applications. Often, when an operating system crashes, it's because the kernel is poorly designed, either because it contains too much unnecessary code or because outside applications have too much access to it.
QNX's operating system doesn't have that problem. At the heart of the software is a "microkernal" that handles the operating system's core tasks. Compared to most other operating systems, QNX's microkernel is, well, micro, and very well-shielded from the influence of third-party applications. The small, nimble software is designed primarily to handle multiple processes and, more importantly, to be as stable as possible. Outside RIM's PlayBook, QNX's operating system runs in areas such as medical infrastructure and nuclear power plants, where a software crash would be catastrophic.
"The operating system kicks ass," said Roel Vertegaal, a human-computer interaction professor at Queen's University.
QNX's operating system for the PlayBook, dubbed Neutrino, also allows the tablet to perform true multitasking, something the iPad still can't quite pull off. Indeed, one of the reasons the PlayBook doesn't have a physical "Home" button the same way the iPad does is because users don't need to kill one application to start up another one. They can keep everything running at once.
"If you want to do more than one thing at once and you want to do it very fast - if you want to do work and play together - the PlayBook shines better than the iPad," said Mike Abramsky, managing director of software and wireless research at RBC Dominion Securities. "The iPad is still, for personal use, the gold standard."
In hindsight, the QNX purchase is almost certainly the best $200-million RIM ever spent.
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