BlackBerry PlayBook: Beware of the demo-ware tablet

The BlackBerry PlayBook looks flashy and has excellent specs, but it's still a long way from coming to market and it may fall short in the four areas where a tablet needs to excel.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

I have a similar feeling about the BlackBerry PlayBook (below) as I had about Google Wave when it was introduced. It's a product that looks great in a PowerPoint presentation but when I think about it in the real world, I start to have my doubts.

After its flashy introduction on Monday, my skepticism of the PlayBook deepened when there were no pre-release units available for us to try after the demo. The only glimpses available of the BlackBerry tablet were a few of them suspended behind glass running short videos in a continuous loop.

That, combined with the fact that the release date is "early 2011," means that this product is nowhere near complete. Research in Motion announcing it 4-6 months before it actually arrives in the market is RIM's way of saying, "Hey, we've got a tablet, too. Before you go out and buy an iPad or an Android tablet, hold off until we come out with ours."

This "freezing the market" technique is an old trick employed effectively by others, but especially Microsoft. However, it doesn't work when there are already viable products in the market from trusted vendors. The fact that RIM is pre-announcing the PlayBook so early is evidence that they are fearful of the iPad gaining too much momentum in the enterprise.

Another big warning siren with the PlayBook was the way RIM announced it. RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis put emphasis on two things:

  1. This is a tablet for professional business users
  2. The PlayBook has great specs

It certainly makes sense for RIM to focus on the enterprise. That's where it's traditional strength is and enterprises have taken a quick and surprising affinity to the iPad, which means there's definitely a market there. However, while the PlayBook does has impressive specs, the fact that RIM chose to emphasize them so heavily isn't a good sign.

RIM talked about the PlayBook's dual core processor, 1 GB of RAM, and Flash 10.1 as if they had just pulled out a royal flush at the poker table. They seemed to gloat with self-satisfaction over each of these features, as if to say, "Aha! See, we're sticking it to the iPad."

Not only was that annoying, it was evidence that RIM is stuck in 1990s thinking about computing devices. The bottom line is that most of those specs don't mean much any more. Both consumers and the enterprise -- at least, the smart enterprises -- want products that just work and that get the technology itself out of the way. (I would say that Flash is one of the things that people want to just work, but after using it on Android 2.2 devices and seeing how slow and buggy it is, I'm starting to think NOT having Flash on mobile devices is a benefit.)

The iPad has four killer features:

  1. Ease of use
  2. Great battery life
  3. Lots of apps
  4. Price

Any tablet that wants to compete with the iPad needs to be at least minimally competent in those four areas and then bring something to the table that outshines the iPad.

Unfortunately, the PlayBook is likely to come up short in all four areas.

In terms of ease of use, while the demo of the PlayBook's tablet OS looks like a mix between the iPad and the Palm WebOS, RIM does not have a good history of building usable software. Their software is very secure and it's full-featured, but ease of use has never been one of their strengths, so they would have to pull off a coup here. The primary reason why the iPad has been so successful is because the user experience is almost completely self-evident.

In neither RIM's on-stage presentation nor in its official press release did the company mention a single word about battery life. While it sounds impressive that the PlayBack has a 1 GHz dual-core processor, it takes a lot of power to run that kind of CPU. BlackBerry devices typically have excellent battery life, so RIM knows what it's doing in this department. Still, it would be very difficult to get over 10 hours of battery life (the iPad's gold standard) out of tablet with a dual core CPU. And, the fact that RIM didn't mention battery life is probably an indication that it's something they're still wrestling with.

In terms of apps, the PlayBook is built on QNX, a totally separate architecture than the traditional BlackBerry OS. Here's what RIM said about it as an app platform in its official statement:

"The OS is fully POSIX compliant enabling easy portability of C-based code, supports Open GL for 2D and 3D graphics intensive applications like gaming, and will run applications built in Adobe Mobile AIR as well as the new BlackBerry WebWorks app platform announced today (which will allow apps to be written to run on BlackBerry PlayBook tablets as well as BlackBerry smartphones with BlackBerry 6). The BlackBerry Tablet OS will also support Java enabling developers to easily bring their existing BlackBerry 6 Java applications to the BlackBerry Tablet OS environment."

I applaud RIM for having the guts to do a complete reboot on their tablet OS, but this also means that when the new platform launches there will probably won't be many apps since most of the existing BlackBerry apps will need some tinkering in order to work on the tablet. And then, RIM is going to have to convince developers to write apps for its tablet instead of (or in addition to) iPad and Android.

The other thing RIM didn't talk about when unveiling the PlayBook was the price. As most of you probably know, when a salesperson doesn't tell you the price of something upfront it's usually because the product is expensive and they want to sell you on the value so that you don't get sticker shock from the big price tag. A lot of people who scoffed at the idea of an Apple tablet at the rumored $999 price tag before its launch changed their minds when the iPad was unveiled at $499 for the least expensive model.

I'm afraid we could see the opposite phenomenon with the PlayBook, especially with all of the high-end specs RIM is touting. A lot of those who are intrigued by the PlayBook today could be priced out of the device when we finally learn the real price tag in the coming months. If it comes in at $800 or more, as I suspect it might, then it will likely be a narrow niche product, at best.

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This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

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