BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: Déjà Vu?

BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: Déjà Vu?

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

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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.

Topics: BlackBerry, Mobility, Security

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D??j?? Vu?

    For me it's the honeymoon phase right now. As a student I found a use for every new feature that didn't require a bb phone. The fact I paid 500 for my playbook is still a sore point, but new life has been breathed into my device.
    houseofcrew
    • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

      @houseofcrew
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      Michelle223
      • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

        @Michelle223 Sweet! Sexy women and handsome guys!? DO THEY HAVE PLAYBOOKS TOO!?
        Imrhien
  • what's this? an unbiased review?

    Congratulations!

    Try out Asphalt 6. RIM is giving it away free as a promo, and it rocks. Best racing game in the platform.

    Wish we could get a wipeout clone :-)
    wizec
    • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

      @sagec I've got it on my Xperia Play and agree, Asphalt 6 is fun as hell.
      Aerowind
  • My dirty little secret. I really admire the Playbook!

    Yet, despite my admiration for the Playbook - especially now that ver 2.0 has been released - I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will purchase an iPad 3 model on the first day of availability because of Jason's main point of his article. It's all about the ecosystem.

    One quick example will suffice. I'm creating this reply using the desktop version of Google's Chrome browser running on my MacBook while using the VNC app, Splashtop Remote on my iPad 2. (Splashtop streams the audio content as well) This synergy allows viewing and controlling a full desktop browser with Flash enabled on my iPad.

    Afterwards, I'll use my 60 minutes app to stream past episodes wirelessly to an HDTV using Apple TV.

    Finally, because I have Windows and Ubuntu installed in virtual machines on my home Apple computers, I literally have real time control of all the major platform ecosystems in the palms of my hands.

    An iPad allows that potential for informational access because of it's hardware and software ecosystem.

    RIM's Playbook will succeed not because of it's hardware (which is excellent) or bundled apps but because of a robust ecosystem. I wish RIM well. But it's competition is formidable.
    kenosha77a
    • Wuss

      Sack up and buy a Book! My 2 year old now has the iPad. Better yet, get to programming for it!
      happyharry_z
    • iPad != 42

      I do all that on my Galaxy Tab 10". There are VERY few things, at the moment, that the iPad can do that you cannot on the Galaxy.

      Since you can run some Android apps on the playbook, I wouldn't be surprised when in the next few weeks someone figures out how to make the Droid version of splashtop work on the playbook. that would render most of your argument moot.

      Not saying the iPad is bad, but people need to remember that the iPad isn't the ultimate device. Personally the iPad is bit too restrictive in what you can do with it, I have done a few things on my Galaxy that I would not have been able to do on an iPad. (How can I be so sure? Because I have tried to do them on my iPhone. :) )

      I wanted to get a Galaxy 7", I might consider the Playbook now for that form factor instead.
      IceQ
    • The norm

      Yeah, you represent the norm. LOL!
      ryork272
  • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: Dj Vu?

    Thank you Jason For a clear precise review ,unlike the vague dissipated mess where CNET"S Roger Cheng summarily dismissed the 2.0 Update. He provided no evidence for his criticisms other than tacitly groveling for a seat at the Press Release of the iPad3, providing the obligatory lip service to Apple in passing. In my criticism of his piece I cited ZDNet's "Apple PR's dirty little secret" by Jason O'Grady 2/15 and compared criticism of Apple as being akin to being a Suspected Communist in the 50's and brought up before the House Committee on UN-American Activities. I really want to see R.I.M and QNX succeed because ultimately they are the most well developed and stable platforms out there. Once the App world becomes full and people get fed up with the data theft that is pervasive throughout iOS and pure Android, R.I.M can really take off, as it is secure in large part due to the honesty of R.I.M's developers. Apple and Android can't claim the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing as they are acquiring and selling their user's stolen data. Let's see how the Murdoch wire tapping scandals play out,as they seem to grow by the minute. It will be interesting to see what carrier's and device manufactures had a role in this. I doubt such pervasive wire-tapping can occur without some sort of collaboration. Privacy is a Constitutional right! Class action lawsuit? Petition Congress and the FCC ? It's an election year !
    Apelles
  • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

    Just so ya know... There are quite a few apps incoming.. The free playbook promotion has done wonders to encourage developers to put their apps on BlackBerry, I'm sure Android developers in particular. And do you think that they will all just tuck it in a drawer and forget about it? No, many of them will continue to tinker with and develop for the Playbook, when they would have otherwise not thought about it. There are over 6,000 apps currently backlogged. Backlogged! Apps are coming, no need to fear. See @asaunders on Twitter for more information.

    Also, Blackberry Playbook has Splashtop, and multiple competing services available for it.
    blargyman
    • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

      Hi @blargyman,

      Alex from RIM here. You???re right! We???ve received a great response from developers in recent weeks, including those writing for Android, Native C/C++, HTML5, Adobe AIR and Qt. In fact, we???re in the process of reviewing over 1,500 ported apps submitted to BlackBerry App World from Android developers in the last three weeks. We???ve also registered nearly 7,000 new developers who are interested in bringing even more apps to the PlayBook. The bottom line is that the number and quality of apps in BlackBerry App World is on the rise.

      For the latest news and updates on developing for the PlayBook, be sure to keep a close eye on our Inside BlackBerry Developer???s Blog: http://bbry.lv/bsbpYQ.

      Cheers,

      Alex, RIM Social Media Team
      alexkinsella
      • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

        @alexkinsella Nice try on the OS 2.0, but it was released too early in my opinion. Not ready for prime time. Doesn't properly sync with Exchange email, doesn't sync at all with Exchange Calendar. Device is now much slower than before. Kobo books have become illegible. RIM's on its last strike of its last at bat for my money. Do something quick to make the apps you already have work, rather than trying to review and approve a million more useless toys of the kind that are available now. An app that makes farting sounds? I ask you, couldn't your quality control staff or whoever looks at that stuff have made better use of the time? Blackberry products are aimed at professionals, and we're really not interested in electronic whoopee cushions, although at this point I've about decided it's the best use of the device because the functionality it had before OS 2.0 (and that wasn't much) has been further impaired. OS 2.0 is just a tease to keep us going, and RIM should be ashamed!
        mradicke
      • Apps

        Hey Alex, I write this from my PB. The new update is awesome. It's about time! I bought the PB last April. I'm very happy to see the co - CEO's resign. The liars needed to go.

        The new free apps are great! But I was forced to side load the Kindle app. Dude WTF! It should have been the first one in app world. And it works great!

        I own both the iPad and the PB. I really want bb to succeed. Keep up the good work and keep the apps and upgrades coming!
        ryork272
      • Blackberry Playbook and Customer Service.

        Alex, I owned a Playbook (actually 4, but more on that later) and was impressed with the OS and its potential. The browser was great, better than any other mobile one I'd previously used, and what few apps I did mange to try worked well. I was excited about the upcoming OS 2.0 update. Even my wife, an Apple iPad fan, like it. Then the unthinkable happened: 2 weeks after getting my first Playbook, it died. Wouldn't powe up or take a chrge, so I returned/exchanged it. The replacement wouldn't event boot up and was returned. The third Playbook worked well until it came time to recharge it. Again it wouldn't take a charge (from either the included adapter or the dock accesory I had purchased) and I could not use that one, so it too was returned. The fourth Playbook was a repeat of the third. Each time I tried to contact Blackberry/RIM, but could not get ANy help whatsoever, live or via email. I ultimately got my money back for the device and while I still see it as possibly the one tablet device with the most potential, I just have such a bad taste from my experience with it and RIM, that event with the new OS i couldn't recommend it. Sorry. Please don't misunderstandme; I hope the thing picks up and rocks the market. I'll just not be one of those using it.
        you_who_2001@...
  • The changes seem impressive

    .. i really hope for RIM's sake and the sake of it's staff, that they're onto a winner.
    thx-1138_
  • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

    The Playbook was attractive but, for most people moving away from Blackberry phones, the lack of email and calendar were deal breakers. For me, I think it might be to little to late as I found alternatives I really like. For others, they might give it a shot.
    slickjim
  • I love the playbook

    It is the perfect size for bringing your surfing around the house with you as you are busy. The video conferencing is indeed excellent, and as most of my family bought one when they went on discount, the thing has basically replaced my phone.

    The upgrade has brought a few surprises. Hooked up to my gmail now, the thing is always beeping at me! (new mail.)

    My only gripe is that I lost my OS 1.0 wallpaper when the OS 2.0 was installed. I liked the red and blue haze, and have to figure out how I find that again!
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
  • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

    I agree, RIM is late to the game. Doubling down by requiring the Playbook to tether to a Blackberry was a horrible idea. They've acknowledged that with this release, but in the interim, Apple kept momentum with iOS 5 and the 4S and iPad2, Android kept moving forward with ICS and Amazon and B&N entered the fray.

    I won't count RIM out, but their mix of complacency and indecision has them playing catchup, and they have quite a bit of ground to make up.
    TroyMcClure
    • RE: BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: D????j???? Vu?

      @piousmonk

      FYI...the Playbook never required a BB phone to tether. I have been tethering my Verizon LG envTouch 3g phone to it since I bought it. That was a big misconception...which RIM did nothing to dispell.

      I am also able to use my new Droid Bionic LTE phone with it via the Wi-Fi Hotspot option, and that works well also.

      Showed my PB to two iPad2 owners yesterday, and they both preferred the size of the PB over their iPads. Both said it felt much better in their hands because of the rubberized backing, & was easier to hold. They said it didn't feel like it was "a piece of glass about to slip out of my hands". The screen is much clearer than their iPads as well. And sound wise...NOTHING even comes close to the output of the PB.

      I liked it before the upgrade...I very happy with it now. Just waiting for more Android applications to show up. Need more weather and news programs, and hopefully, the folks at Sling Media will get on the stick and port their Sling Player to it soon. :-)
      IT_Fella