RIM’s PlayBook: A Good Device That Could Be Great4:03 PM EST Mon. May. 02, 2011
Research In Motion appears to be tech’s favorite punching bag now, and the company is undoubtedly providing some reasons for others to take shots. RIM’s announcement that it will fall short of the market’s earnings expectations for its most recent quarter is one good example.
But don’t think of the RIM PlayBook as a reason to look down at RIM or the BlackBerry franchise. Technically, the product is just as sound and perhaps even more elegant that Apple’s iPad -- and certainly it’s as physically attractive at launch as the iPad.
RIM’s challenge isn’t as much with its own technology as with others.’ Namely, it’s getting killed in the ISV market as app developers follow the money to iOS and Android platforms. After looking at and evaluating the PlayBook, we’ve one conclusion:
The PlayBook is a magnificent product that could reignite the old flames of its legions of “CrackBerry” devotees. Its fit and finish, look and feel and brilliant screen and touch keyboard are markedly better than the iPad.
The CRN Test Center has found a number strengths, and number of weaknesses with the PlayBook (just as many found strengths and weaknesses with the first iPads and iPhones.) There are challenges and opportunities. RIM is making a number of announcements this week on software and apps that will make the PlayBook even better if they work, but from our initial PlayBook look, here is why we think it can be great:
-- Its size is perfect. Built at 5.1 inches by 7.6 inches wide, it’s a few ounces under a pound. While it can’t exactly fit into a jacket pocket like a phone, it’s easier to clasp in your hand than an iPad. It’s lightly rubberized casing makes it wonderful to grip. It just feels right;
-- Its 7-inch display is so bright, vivid and clear -- with HD video quality at 1080p playback -- it makes it the best display in its class that we’ve seen. It views bigger than seven inches;
-- Its touch keyboard is what you’d expect from BlackBerry: best in class. It allows for a slightly higher degree of accuracy than an iPad, and, frankly, a much higher degree of accuracy than several Android devices we’ve seen. RIM has gotten this part right, and to many that will be a really big deal;
-- Its price starts at $449 for a 16-GB version, and it tracks iPad pricing closely up the capacity ladder. That makes it competitive out of the gate on a cost-of-acquisition basis;
-- Its on-board camera is outstanding -- at least as good as any other device-based camera on the market now;
-- The swiping actions aren’t as straightforward and intuitive as with Apple’s iOS devices, but the touch feels slightly more sensitive and quicker to get a response;
-- With its BlackBerry Bridge, it’s built to integrate with other BlackBerry data and enterprise technology -- and in a secure environment. The more risk-averse enterprises may find the PlayBook head and shoulders above Android devices in this area;
-- The platform encrypts corporate data and keeps it securely walled off from non-corporate data on the same tablet. This will provide a level of security in the enterprise that other devices just don’t offer.
Next: Where The RIM PlayBook Falls Short
So what’s the big problem for the PlayBook? What’s wrong for the PlayBook is what’s so right for iPad and Android tablets: third-party software support.
When we turned on, registered the PlayBook and hooked into WiFi, it was like opening an ornately wrapped gift box -- only to open that gift box and find inside a few marbles and an IOU. Where the heck are the apps?
Alan Panezic, vice president of software for RIM, told reporters during a Monday briefing at BlackBerry World in Orlando that, on launch, there were more than 3,000 apps available for the PlayBook platform on launch -- more than any other competing device on launch. That’s not good enough; RIM has had deep and long-standing relationships with so many ISVs that it would have been reasonable to expect many more apps on launch. (By comparison, there are now more apps just for one category -- health and fitness -- on iOS than apps in total for PlayBook.)
An example: When we searched BlackBerry App World -- its online app store for third-party software -- for “video chat,” it returned just a couple of hits, including two for “video poker.”
RIM is attempting to address this and, among other things, will make available as early as tonight BlackBerry PlayBook Video Chat. That’s its own, proprietary video chat application that will allow one person with a PlayBook to hold video chats with someone who has another PlayBook. It should do better. If video chat on a PlayBook can work with video chat on an iPad 2, for example, the device will be much more powerful. One route to achieve that would be to encourage or work with Skype -- which provides video chat that works on iOS devices.
Additionally, RIM said they it will launch a new, tablet-optimized Facebook app for the PlayBook this week. At a list price of $449, you could call the PlayBook the “Facebook Tablet” and, frankly, it would sell a lot of units on that alone. RIM executives said they have worked intensively with Facebook to maximize the social networking service’s video, chat and other features to the tablet form factor. By contrast, this is actually a very positive move.
The key for RIM will be aggressive work with third-party developers, and that will mean providing them aggressive financial incentives if need be. The great thing about mobile devices is that, because of the software and app ecosystems, they tend to become more valuable over time. That builds platform loyalty.
The bottom line: RIM developed an incredibly loyal market during the late ‘90s and 2000s on the BlackBerry platform, but lost its mojo by underestimating the eventual popularity of iPhone and Android devices in the enterprise. The will win back a lot of that mojo by engaging ISVs and VARs -- the trusted local advisor to enterprise IT.
If that happens, the results will speak for themselves in answering all those critics today who are now piling on.
The PlayBook will require a good look and consideration by enterprises moving to tablets as part of the IT blueprint.