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.