BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: Déjà Vu?

Almost a year after its launch, are the improvements in RIM's tablet OS good enough to fend off the Apple and Amazon juggernauts?

Today, February 21, 2012, Research in Motion released a major software upgrade for its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer, which finally brings it native email and PIM functions, no longer requiring that it be wirelessly tethered to a BlackBerry handset over Bluetooth to perform those critical functions.

The new PlayBook OS 2.0 also brings Android 2.3.x compatability to the device, potentially opening it up to a huge and previously untapped library of software applications.

And there was much rejoicing.

Had the PlayBook launched with all of these features in late April of 2011, at the discount price the base device is selling at now ($199 for the 16GB version) almost a year ago, we probably wouldn't have been talking so feverishly about $199 Kindle Fires and NOOKTablets, and any number of other low cost tablet devices in the 7" space today.

And we might not have even been talking about RIM's eventual demise either.

In many ways, I feel like this is a Déjà Vu or a "Groundhog Day" moment. The last time I talked about the Playbook and gave it heavy praise was back on March 1st of last year. It was the day the nearly finished version of the PlayBook software was shown to an eager press at a swanky party in NYC.

This was one day before the iPad 2 was unveiled to the public, and also only a few days after the Motorola XOOM, the first real Android tablet went on the market.

Fast foward ten months. The PlayBook has been a massive sales disappointment. Not enough to tank the product completely like HP's TouchPad, but along with the company's declining share in the world's smartphone market, it would become a contributing factor in accelerating the deterioration of RIMs corporate image.

Ultimately, the failure of this product would negatively impact the value of the company's stock in a management fiasco that would eventually force the resignation of the company's co-CEO's, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie.

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The company's entire future is now in question, and with this new software update, the PlayBook is yet again under the microscope.

And in just about two weeks, we will find out exactly what sort of new competition it will have to deal with in the next year with the launch of Apple's 3rd-generation iPad.

So where does the PlayBook stand now that it finally has some decent software to run on it?

I have to admit I've always been a big fan of the underdog, and the Playbook is still a great little tablet computer for the money, particularly if you compare it to the $199 basic 16GB version to the $199 8GB Kindle Fire or the soon to be on the market $199 8GB NOOKTablet.

Unlike these other two no-frills devices the 1Ghz, 1GB RAM dual core OMAP 4430-based PlayBook sports dual HD cameras (3MP/5MP) as well as Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, HDMI 1080p output, microphone, GPS and a healthy built-in stereo speaker system.

That's quite a bit of hardware for $199.

The software upgrade certainly makes the PlayBook a great deal more useful than it was when it launched. The integrated email client/calendar/PIM is excellent, and it does a good job of tying in all of your relevant messaging accounts with their associated contact lists (email, Twitter direct message, Facebook messaging, LinkedIn messaging) and works extremely well.

My only beef with the email, contacts and calendar clients is that they only work in landscape mode. This is really more of a minor annoyance than anything else, but sometimes you want to hold the device in portrait mode and read messages one-handed. In landscape mode, that's somewhat harder to do.

The PlayBook's web browser is leaps and bounds better than anything you are going to find on a budget Android tablet. From a HTML5 standards perspective, it even edges out the Chrome Beta for Android, and that browser only runs on the very latest Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) tablets and smartphones.

Kindle Fire's Silk or the regular built-in Android browser? Forget about it. Not even in the same universe. You're getting a full desktop browser experience with the PlayBook.

But the PlayBook browser also has integrated Flash support, something Chrome for Android doesn't have and also never will.

Web sites render beautifully and extremely fast. This was true of the PlayBook when it was first released almost a year ago, but RIM's browser team has done an excellent job of keeping it up to date and standards-compliant.

In addition to having the best browser experience on any 7" tablet currently on the market, it also has the best video conferencing capability of any tablet or smartphone on the market, including the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4s.

The 3MP front-facing camera and integrated microphone captures extremely sharp video and clear audio and RIM's engineers have done a superb job with the built-in video conferencing application.

The downside of course is that this video conferencing currently only works between one PlayBook and another PlayBook -- and it requires a BlackBerry ID in order for it to function. But if you were a company looking to do high quality video conferencing on the cheap, you could do a lot worse than picking up a few PlayBooks for your organization.

I also would like to note that in terms of overall responsiveness and how it deals with multi-tasking, the Linux-based Android Gingerbread (2.3.x) and Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0.x) OSes are no match for the PlayBook's QNX RTOS kernel.

The jerkiness and random instability you get in Android just doesn't happen in QNX, and the 30 years of maturity of that OS really shines on the PlayBook, particularly when combined with the smooth and easy to use card/swiping UI.

So again, a year later, I ask the question: What's not to like?

The application situation with the PlayBook is still not much better than it was almost a year ago. While the PlayBook has several programming APIs to choose from -- Adobe AIR, Webworks (HTML5/Javascript), Native C++ and even Android Dalvik, developer interest in the device is still extremely cold.

One can hope that now that the PlayBook has the PIM/messaging features that consumers are looking for, that there will be renewed interest in the device. I've spent the last day scrounging through RIM's App World for the PlayBook, and I still can't find many of the top 50 applications that one would expect to find on iOS, the Android Market or on the Kindle Fire.

For example, searching for "Twitter" doesn't yield any of the apps one might expect, such as the official Twitter client, TweetDeck, Seesmic, Plume, or TweetCaster.

I know that these Android applications work, because I've managed to side load a whole bunch of these converted APK files to the PlayBook's native BAR format from illicit sources on an earlier developer build of OS 2.0. So it's not like this is a technical problem, especially when they are pure Dalvik apps.

Sure, there's Angry Birds of every flavor, but RIM doesn't currently support Google Ads-supported free versions. You'll have to hand over hard cash if you want your avian kamikaze fix.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm sure we'll see a good number of new Android apps appear in App World as RIM is currently offering free PlayBooks to developers. But while Android support is nice, the real strength of the device is in Webworks and native, high-performance C++ apps, which require a bit more effort to develop. And that's where there's a huge app gap on the PlayBook currently exists.

RIM is going to need developers to commit to writing for these APIs if it expects to make any traction with its next generation of QNX-based BlackBerry OS 10 "Superphones" which use the same basic technology foundation as the PlayBook.

The OS 10 handsets aren't due until towards the end of 2012, but if the PlayBook continues to be a marketing dud and sales remain weak despite the considerable software improvements, the company may not have much of a future at all.

And we haven't even seen the iPad 3, which launches in two weeks, or the iPhone 5, which is rumored to be launched around the same time as the OS 10 BlackBerry handsets. Not to mention the inevitable refresh of the Kindle Fire, which has already sold in the millions of units.

I would like to think that the PlayBook OS 2.0 represents a renaissance for the product. But with so much competition in the marketplace, it's very difficult for me to remain optimistic about the QNX platform's prospects.

Is the release of PlayBook OS 2.0 the beginning of a bright new era for RIM, or is it the company's swan song? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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