Will PlayBook Be a Player?

With the launch of the BlackBerry PlayBook upon us, its acceptance in the tablet market is soon to be tested. Pre-release reviews by media outlets have had a decidedly negative spin, especially when contrasting this tablet against its most formidable competitor, the iPad. RIM’s co-CEOs have been put on the defensive, scrambling to counter the claims of design deficiencies, lack of apps and reliance on BlackBerry smartphones to be useful. How valid are these assertions? Will the deficiencies be addressed anytime soon? How will this bad press affect the adoption of the BlackBerry PlayBook in an increasingly crowded market? Does the PlayBook have any redeeming qualities? These are the questions I plan to address here.

Device Size

The size of the BlackBerry PlayBook has been the subject of frequent criticism when compared to other competing tablets. For instance, a recent PC World review states “you’re paying the same amount for a smaller device”. The following table shows the size comparison of the PlayBook with other comparable tablets.

PlayBook iPad 2 Galaxy Tab Xoom
Dimensions (in.) 7.6 x 5.1 x 0.4 9.5 x 7.31 x 0.34 7.48 x 4.74 x 0.47 9.8 x 6.6 x 0.5
Weight (lbs.) 0.9 1.35 0.85 1.6
Display Size (in.) 7 9.7 7 10.1
Display Resolution 1024 x 600 1024 x 768 1024 x 600 1280 x 800
Pixel Density (ppi) 160 131 160 162

The PlayBook is significantly smaller than the iPad 2 or the Xoom, and is about the same size as the Galaxy Tab. In terms of screen real-estate, the iPad 2 has more than double the viewable area of the PlayBook. However, in terms of resolution, the iPad 2 has only 28% more pixels than the PlayBook. This is because the pixel density on the PlayBook is higher than the iPad 2, so a similar number of pixels fit into a much smaller area. The Xoom tablet is the overall winner in the size category with the largest display, best resolution and highest pixel density.

There is something to be said for smaller devices in terms of portability. The iPad 2 and Xoom are close to the size of notebook computers while the PlayBook and Xoom are about midway between the size of a smartphone and a notebook. Since portability decreases with size, mid-size devices like the PlayBook or Galaxy tab will likely be carried more places more often than their larger counterparts.

Wi-Fi Only

The PlayBook is being released as Wi-Fi only versions. This is in stark contrast to the other major tablets which all offer at least some models with 3G connectivity. RIM has announced plans to release a 4G version of the PlayBook this summer with Sprint being the first carrier. This will bring the PlayBook up to par in this area with the other tablet since all of the other major tablet brands also have plans to produce 4G versions in the near future.

In the meantime, there is one solution currently available for using the PlayBook over a 3G connection to those customers who own a 3G BlackBerry smartphone. The PlayBook can pair to the smartphone over a BlueTooth connection and gain full access to its 3G wireless connection. This approach, while only available to BlackBerry smartphone users, is also less expensive than tablet with built-in 3G support, since it does not require adding the tablet as a separate device on the mobile phone plan. However, for non-BlackBerry smartphone customers, the lack of 3G/4G support in the current PlayBook device may be enough reason in itself to hold off on purchasing the tablet.

Lack of Organizer Apps

RIM, the company that built its reputation on devices for email, decided not to include stand-alone organizer apps (email, calendar, contacts, etc.) in the initial PlayBook release. Again, its not a problem if you already own a BlackBerry smartphone since the PlayBook does include organizer apps that can view & edit emails, appointments and contacts that reside on the smartphone. This is done through a technology called BlackBerry Bridge. It allows the PlayBook to effectively be used as a larger screen for the BlackBerry smartphone. All of the data shared between the devices is encrypted, and none of the information remains on the PlayBook when the connection is closed. This keeps all of the organizer data as secure as it has always been on BlackBerrys, and should help IT departments feel comfortable about introducing PlayBooks into their device ecosystem.

Unfortunately, non-BlackBerry smartphone users are left out in the cold in this area for the time being. The only current options for such users is Internet-based e-mail like gmail and Yahoo! mail, or corporate e-mail via web front-ends such as the Outlook Web App for Microsoft Exchange. RIM has announced plans to release stand-alone organizer apps later this year, so this deficiency is likely to be short-lived.

Limited App Availability

You may have heard that the BlackBerry PlayBook has a brand-new operating system and that there are very few apps available for it. There is some truth in that, but hopefully I can shed a little more light on the subject.

The PlayBook runs an operating system named QNX, which is completely unrelated to the operating system currently used on its smartphones. The QNX operating system can hardly be considered new though, as it was first released in 1982. QNX is quite similar to UNIX, but it was designed as a real-time operating system for embedded applications. It has been used for many years in automotive control systems, industrial control systems, navigation systems and the like.

RIM acquired QNX Software Systems in April 2010 and began adapting it for use in their upcoming PlayBook tablet and future smartphone devices. While QNX undoubtedly had many applications developed for it over its 30 year history, those were all very specific to the types of systems it was embedded in, and thus will not supplement the catalog of available apps for the PlayBook.

RIM recognized early on the problem posed by lack of apps, and took the somewhat unusual step of offering a free PlayBook to each software company that produced and submitted a qualified app prior to the planned launch (fart apps and flashlights do not qualify). This step energized the development community and was a key strategic move to ensure a substantial app library would be available for the initial product release.

The number of PlayBook apps expected to be available by the April 19th release is a few thousand. While this is a far cry from the number of apps available for iPad and Android tablets, it is a large enough number to make the device useful from day one. Even so, the future for app availability on the PlayBook looks much brighter.

Initially, RIM provided the development tools in partnership with Adobe for creating apps based on the Adobe AIR run-time. AIR is similar to Flash, except that it allows the apps to run outside of a browser and have greater access to the device hardware. A few months later, RIM also added support for apps built using BlackBerry WebWorks which uses web technologies such as HTML 5 and Javascript. Recently RIM announced that it will soon support Android apps as well as apps written for BlackBerry smartphones. At that point, the app catalog for the PlayBook will be on par with the other major tablets. But RIM isn’t stopping there. They also plan to natively support Java, C and C++ applications, making it the most open and flexible tablet device platform available. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see .NET applications available on the device someday either.

Lasting First Impressions

While the saying “any press is good press” might hold true for Hollywood icons, it can be quite different for technology. Overcoming an initial negative reputation can be quite a challenge. The media’s influence on customer opinions regarding technology is huge, as customers rely heavily on reviews and put extra weight on those that come from trusted sources. Given the recent swell of negative reviews preceding the PlayBook release, RIM has their work cut out for them to prove their technology is better than the press indicates.

Unfortunately, many of the negative reviews are justified. The PlayBook in its original incarnation is not likely to wow the world. If you are a current BlackBerry user, the PlayBook would be a welcome addition to your toy chest. For the rest of the population, it would be a nice, fast tablet with somewhat limited utility. However, if RIM pulls off all the improvements it plans over the course of the next year, PlayBook will be a serious contender in the tablet market.

Something Good

While the negative attributes of the PlayBook have featured prominently in many of the recent reviews, the device does have a few gems worth mentioning:

  • Fast processor – 1GHz dual-core processor puts its performance among the best of the tablets.
  • Full multi-tasking – Run and easily switch between multiple apps.
  • Supports Flash – Now your web experience can be complete. Can display over 1.6 million web sites that other tablets can’t.
  • High-resolution cameras – 5MP rear & 3MP front camera. Video calling.
  • HDMI port – while the PlayBook display might be limited to 1024×600, hook it up to an HDTV as an external display and get up to 1920×1080 resolution at your disposal. I think this might just prove to be the best feature of the PlayBook. Think games, movies and presentations.

As a current BlackBerry smartphone user, I am looking forward to the PlayBook release with great anticipation and am cautiously optimistic about its potential for success. I suspect the initial adoption will be primarily from the existing BlackBerry customer base. Only once the lack of 3G/4G connectivity and stand-alone organizer apps are addressed will the device likely be able to find a substantial mainstream following.

About Daniel Brannon

Daniel Brannon founded OSoSLO in 2009 to provide software tools and services for business and technology professionals.
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