New features in version 2.0 of its operating system make the PlayBook what it was supposed to have been last year: A truly impressive device. But is the market too impatient for it?
In the blood sport that passes for tablet journalism, Research In Motion was trampled when it stumbled and fell in the game of Last Tablet Standing. The PlayBook, RIM’s much-delayed entry, arrived in April last year and was instantly criticized for not having as many apps as Apple’s iPad, for having a 7-inch screen, which Steve Jobs promptly dismissed as being too small, and for not having a native e-mail application.
This last criticism was particularly deserved for a company that led the way in portable e-mail: to use the PlayBook as an e-mail client when not near a Wi-Fi connection, users had to have a BlackBerry smartphone and to connect it via Bluetooth to their PlayBook. When the tablet was released, RIM immediately announced it would rectify the situation with a software update due in 60 days.
That update finally arrived Tuesday, some 240 days after it was promised, in the form of a new operating system called BlackBerry OS 2.0. (The updated operating system can be downloaded free for PlayBook owners via its Wi-Fi connection.) It addresses many of the original criticisms, but 10 months is an eternity in an impatient industry that demands a revolution every six months.
An early examination of the new system shows a slick device that has been properly beta-tested, a successful piece of hardware. But it will still have a long way to go to win back the popularity contest it lost to Apple, the Google-made Android devices and even Amazon’s Kindle Fire. And then it will face even more competition later this year from the iPad 3, also due soon, from Microsoft, when it unleashes Windows 8, and perhaps from a new device from Motorola, which Google now owns.
How this will shake out is anybody’s guess — a scant 18 months ago RIM appeared to be the company to beat in the corporate sphere; now, the online punditocracy has been quick to write RIM’s obituary. Still, when RIM cut the price of its PlayBook to $299, there was a run on the item, and there are reports that the PlayBook now holds a 15 per cent share of the tablet market, which despite the obituaries is a significant share.
One thing that the obituaries are missing is that the PlayBook hardware has not changed. BB OS 2.0 runs fluidly and properly on the device, and since the OS upgrade is free, this makes the tablet a strong product.
This release answers most of the prayers people had for the original PlayBook. It now includes a native e-mail client, a calendar and contacts list; its unified inbox gathers all messages in one place, including those from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as personal and work e-mail accounts. (There are also integrated Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn apps.) The calendar application uses data from social networks, and populates contact cards with the updated information.
As a device for businesses, which has been RIM’s strongest market, BB OS 2.0 has also beefed up its document editing functions and added a new Print To Go app. A feature called BlackBerry Balance offers better control over corporate data, and another, called BlackBerry Mobile Fusion, supports both PlayBook tablets and BlackBerry smartphones for deployment by enterprise IT departments. This version of Mobile Fusion is a partial launch; a full version, to be released in late March, will offer enterprises management of various other smartphones as well, through a single unified console, with added support for Apple iOS and Android devices. This last bit is timely, because the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), a movement to open businesses to encourage employees to use their own devices, has been gaining traction among enterprise customers recently.
There are, moreover, a few nice surprises. There’s a feature in BlackBerry Bridge that offers wireless control over the tablet by letting your BlackBerry smartphone act as its keyboard and mouse, via a Bluetooth connection. Bluetooth also plays a role when connecting the PlayBook and core apps on a BlackBerry smartphone (e-mail, contacts, calendar and browser) that make smartphone documents, web pages, e-mail and photos appear on the larger tablet display.
There is an Open On feature, which allows users to open documents (PowerPoint, Word, and PDF), photos and links from a BlackBerry smartphone on the PlayBook tablet with one click.
The PlayBook’s updated virtual keyboard now includes auto correction and predictive text, and has a “learning” function to help users to type more quickly and accurately.
And answering the chorus of critics who said there were just not enough apps for the PlayBook, RIM has also included the ability run apps from Google's Android operating system, and has been tempting developers with free PlayBooks to port their apps to the new operating system. The company’s promotion claims that there are (or would be) “thousands” of new apps on BlackBerry App World, including games such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, but the allure of a free PlayBook doesn’t appear to have yet beefed up the BlackBerry App World with a significant number of them.
This version of BlackBerry PlayBook, then, is what it was supposed to be almost a year ago. Its operating system, based on a rock-solid product from RIM-owned QNX, operates the way it should, and does so attractively.
The problem is that the handheld world has devolved into two warring camps, Apple iOS and Android, and fans have been entrenching themselves, much as they did in the old Apple-Microsoft wars. These people, most of them “early adopters,” are fiercely committed people, and not likely to want to shift again. But then again either Google or Apple can stumble, which is not likely, or Apple’s iPad 3 makes the fans gasp with awe, or the Microsoft juggernaut jumps into the lifeboat and threatens to swamp everyone.
In that case, the BlackBerry PlayBook will end up being a wonderful product that few people want. And that will be too bad, because the PlayBook, with BB OS 2.0, is a fine product.