How the BlackBerry Playbook Could Be Great

BlackBerry’s entry into the tablet races, the PlayBook, has certainly taken its knocks since it was introduced last week and most of them are deserved. No doubt, it’s an odd product. It’s a very business-y tablet in the world dominated by the consumer -centric iPad. And while I find comparing the raw number of apps available for different platforms a silly game, the Playbook is missing apps that any reasonable users would consider critical.

So I’m not going to recommend that anyone go out and buy a Playbook right now. And even once the most crucial missing apps are available, I would say the Playbook really only makes sense for people who already have BlackBerrys and use them for work. But for that not inconsiderable market, the Playbook could make a lot of sense.

Even the Playbook’s harshest critics have conceded some very nice design features: A fluid user interface that I find more intuitive than either iPad or Android. True multitasking (though it gets cranky when too many apps are open at once.) Speedy performance including a mobile Flash implementation that actually works well. Excellent 7″ display. Very good battery life.

The single most criticized thing about the Playbook is its lack of a native email and calendar functions. Instead, it is designed to pair with a BlackBerry and become, in effect, a synced display for the mail and calendar on the handset. and, in addition to a solid standard web browser, it offers a separate browser that works through the secured BlackBerry environment, a useful feature for deployment of corporate web apps. Once you accept the fact that only current BlackBerry users are the Playbook’s market, at least for now, this actually makes sense.

Pat Moorhead of AMD has written a very thorough blog post  explaining how this is a strategic decision,  not some weird oversight by Research In Motion. To follow what RIM is up to, you have to understand that while the BlackBerry can handle any sort of internet mail, it is really designed to do its thing as a front end to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). BES makes the BlackBerry part of a secure environment where essentially every function of the device can be controlled by policy settings. In addition to being able to wipe data from a device reported lost or stolen and encrypt messages stored on a device, IT managers can control what apps can be run on the device, disable the camera, and enforce corporate calling rules on the use of the phone. By simply being a window into a handset–no BlackBerry data are stored on the Playbook–the tablet inherits  the secure BlackBerry environment. This may not thrill users, but it creates a comfort level among IT managers that no other mobile device can provide. But it is also difficult and complex to implement on a new platform running a new operating system, not to mention the time required to win the security certifications that make the BlackBerry unique in the mobile world.

Much has been said about the consumerization of corporate IT and the inability of enterprises to stop employees from bringing their own devices. There’s something to this, but only to a point. In certain large sectors subject to stringent compliance rules–notable health care, financial services, and government–IT will continue to call the shots unless and until other vendors offer a BES-like security environment. (Apple offers a reasonably secure implementation of Microsoft Exchange, but it is well short of the comprehensive policy control of BES. Android needs help from third-party client-server software, such as that from Good Technology, even to get into the game.)

Health care, finance, and government are big enough sectors to assure a measure of success from the Playbook even if its market is limited to BES BlackBerry users. But RIM still has to do some critical things to make the Playbook usable even for the loyalest of customers.

  • Fix the AT&T problem. Something has gone horribly wrong between RIM and AT&T, one of its largest carriers and AT&T is blocking the installation of the Bridge software required to make mail and calendar work on the Playbook. Fortunately, there’s a fairly easy workaround. Speculation has been that AT&T is doing this to prevent Playbook owners from reaching the internet through their BlackBerry’s, but damn it, I am already paying AT&T $20 a month for tethered access through my BlackBerry and that seems to make no difference. (AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.)
  • Beg or bribe developers to supply critical apps. I’m thrilled that there’s an app giving access to productions of the National Film Board of Canada, but the lack of a proper Twitter app is a deal breaker for me. There’s a Twitter icon among the preinstalled apps, but it disappointingly is just a URL, as are the Facebook and Gmail links. The lack of SugarSync and Evernote apps is somewhat ameliorated by the ability touse browser versions of the services.The Playbook would make a spendid ebook reader, but there’s no Kindle app yet (sorry, Kobo is not a substitute.) The Playbook version of App World is a wasteland. If RIM cannot fix this quickly, all the IT love on the world won’t save Playbook.
  • Document editing. [Corrected] You can view PowerPoint files, but not edit them in the stripped-down version of Documents To Go. Word and Excel files can be created and edited, but files downloaded in email messages are treated as read-only, a serious drawback. But RIM owns Documents To Go.  If their own developers can’t write workable Playbook apps, what hope is there for third-party efforts?
  • Fix Bridge. The idea of Bridge is very clever, but not all the features work. Most seriously, I never got my contacts to appear on the Playbook, though mail and calendar worked fine. A feature that is supposed to give the Playbook access to files stored on a BlackBerry’s SD card seems not to work at all. I could see the file hierarchy on the card, but not actual files, and problem also noted by Ars Technica in a comprehensive review.
I hope RIM gets its act together quickly, because we desperately news more good tablets to drive innovation forward. Like the iPad, and unlike the mess that is Android Honeycomb, the Playbook has the feel of a well thought-out and integrated design. For BlackBerry owners, the lack of native mail, calendar, and contact apps is much less of a disadvantage than it would seem. But without other apps, it just can’t do enough to justify its existence.

11 Responses to “How the BlackBerry Playbook Could Be Great”

  1. Peter Hansen Says:

    Much of what you said I agree with, but on a few things I differ, and you got at least one fact wrong.

    You say you can’t edit Word or Excel docs, but it’s actually only the PowerPoint files that are only viewable. Didn’t you even try editing the other two? It works fine…

    I’m also surprised when people say the PlayBook is largely business-y and won’t appeal to consumers. Given the effectively unmatched audio and video capabilities of the tablet, I’m fairly sure it will have wide consumer appeal, replacing portable DVD viewers, game consoles, e-book readers, and a variety of other media devices. In fact, at the moment it may be better as a media consumption device than anything else (which says lots about RIM’s ineptness in many areas, but that’s another story).

    • swildstrom Says:

      You are right about the editability of documents and I will update. what I meant to say was that Word files and other documents downloaded in email messages are trerated as read-only. I understand that this is part of the security model, but it’s a serious drawback.

  2. Mike Bauer Says:

    I happened to be in a Staples store Saturday buying a toner cartridge. Naturally upon seeing the Playbook display I could not help but go and take a look.

    I was very surprised that there was a disclaimer displayed that to make the Playbook work you had to spend about 30 minutes on a high speed connection to to download software to make it work after buying it. That strikes me as absurd? I spend $500 for it and it doesn’t do anything?

    I’ll stick to my iPad, even though I have a Blackberry phone. To me that is a real marketing screw up.

    • Peter Hansen Says:

      I thought that when you bought your iPad, you had to install iTunes on your PC/Mac, and hook the iPad up to it with a wire of some kind, to download some software, or something like that, before you could use it. Are you saying that right out of the box, you can start using the iPad, buy apps for it, and so forth, without doing that first?

      • swildstrom Says:

        When you buy a new iOS device, you must do an initial sync to a Mac or PC to activate it. If you buy at an Apple store, they’ll do it before you leave. But you still need a wired connection to sync iTunes content and back up the iOS device.

    • swildstrom Says:

      Staples must think a high-speed connection is 56k. You do need to do an OS upgrade when you first start the Playbook, but it took about 5 minutes over the air (via Wi-Fi.)

      It beats waiting for months, if not forever, for a current OS on Android.

      I imagine the Playbooks being shipped into the channel now have the latest OS preloaded.

    • Mike Bauer Says:

      Hmmm. given the latest recall I guess I stand by my thoughts.

      When I bought my iPad I did have to hook it up to my Mac but I didn’t have a warning label on it at a retail store, it was an easy experience and when it was up and running (in a short time) I was quite pleased, and still am.

      It is still hard to see the Playbook coming out ahead of the iPad and the Android tablets.

      • Peter Hansen Says:

        Mike, it’s pretty clear you’re only here to bash the device. The recall is limited, with most of the affected devices still in the channel. If you look at the comments of some of the people who were affected, they almost universally state that tech support helped them work around the problem by hooking their tablets up via USB instead, and updating them via the Desktop Manager software.

        In any case, nobody I know of has ever claimed the PlayBook will “come out ahead of the iPad”, and few have dared to say it will beat out the Android tablets either, so you’re in good company there. Personally, I’m in the camp that doesn’t see the world as black or white, and feels there’s lots of room in the market for a variety of devices, and the PlayBook will do just fine thank you very much, even without your patronage. Cheers!

      • Mike Bauer Says:

        Peter, i am sorry that you think so? I could call you on my Blackberry but I don’t have your number?

        I am a market analyst and planner by profession and I have to help my company and clients make strategic decisions about what they do. I was responding to Steve’s original post in this and frankly setting the technology aside completely they have not done a very good job with the roll out of the Playbook.

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