BlackBerry PlayBook vs. HP TouchPad: A tale of two failures

Both Research in Motion and Hewlett-Packard failed to properly execute the launch of their flagship Tablet products. Why? It's a case of management foul-ups versus engineering snafus.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Both Research in Motion and Hewlett-Packard failed to properly execute the launch of their flagship Tablet products. Why? It's a case of management foul-ups versus engineering snafus.

Someday, not very far in the future, in business school, the tales of both the BlackBerry PlayBook and the HP TouchPad will both be told. It will be recounted that when it finally came time for both of these companies to execute in their attempts to adequately compete with Apple's iPad and Google Android Tablets, they both failed miserably.

But RIM and HP's tablet failures were conceived in two completely different ways, even though both companies' products and launch strategies had some overlap in terms of what they both tried and failed to accomplish.

RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook: A Failure of Management

RIM had all of the ingredients to make the PlayBook a viable, healthy competitor to Apple's iPad. The objective was to make the device the "Enterprise Tablet", the one that busy jet-setting executives would carry in their vest as a pocket powerhouse and access all sorts of corporate apps with.

Besides the iPad 2, the PlayBook was probably one of the most anticipated mobile computing products of 2011. Its hardware and well as its core operating system, QNX, is considered by many technologists and analysts covering the embedded systems/consumer electronics space (including myself) to be best of breed.

Also Read: iPad 2 vs BlackBerry Playbook -- Of Course You Realize, This Means War.

In addition to having overall excellent build quality, the device's OS is extremely responsive, stable, and features perhaps the highest performing and most compatible web browser on any tablet platform shipping to date.

QNX's multi-tasking on the PlayBook has to be seen to be believed. It is astounding.

The PlayBook's video capture using its integrated front-facing 3MP and rear-facing 5MP cameras as well as its on-board video conferencing software is also considered to be the best of all of the tablets currently on the market. There is absolutely nothing in terms of tablet or smartphone video chat that can be compared to it in terms of video and sound quality, and that includes Apple's own FaceTime.

Also Read: BlackBerry PlayBook Video Chat Hands-On: Best in Class?

However, despite the extreme care put into the actual engineering of the product, the launch of the PlayBook is widely considered to have been a failure, due to a lack of good applications seeded into the BlackBerry App World and the product's lack of a native email and calendaring client.

Only a third of PlayBooks were sold in the second quarter of 2011 than were originally expected, according to reports prepared by Asian consumer electronics research firm DigiTimes.

While I have no doubt that RIM employs a great deal of engineering talent that is capable of developing fantastic products, the company has made a number of strategic management errors that likely have doomed the PlayBook platform to failure.

To begin, somewhere along the line, a management decision was made not to ship the product with native email and calendaring, and requiring the BlackBerry Bridge software and a RIM BlackBerry handset activated on BIS or BES in order to access email or calendaring.

BlackBerry Bridge was only recently allowed to be used on AT&T BlackBerry handsets. Up until July 1st, its use was prohibited on that network since the PlayBook's launch on April 19th.

It has been alluded to by Business Insider that this key deficit on the PlayBook may have been a necessary trade-off in order to launch the product within the time frame of the release of competing products such as the iPad 2 and various Android Honeycomb tablets, due to architectural limitations in RIM's centralized messaging infrastructure that needed to be fixed.

While these limitations in the messaging infrastructure do point to a failure to properly engineer the required back-end services to support the product, ultimately this boils down to a failure in management.

RIM could have waited until the product was ready and waited for a native client and back-end support to materialize prior to launch, if in fact the messaging infrastructure issues needed to be solved.

The second major management failure points to a lack of a clear application development roadmap as well as a failure to supply the appropriate developer tools required in order to properly seed the BlackBerry App World with good applications prior to launch.

This clearly evident due to the fact that RIM has announced no fewer than five different APIs for writing PlayBook applications: Adobe AIR, Webworks, Java, Android and Native C++. The last three of which have not yet been released to the balance of RIM's 3rd-party developers yet.

The problem is that RIM decided to go with the least desirable application programming environment first, Adobe AIR. Not only did RIM's key developer base not have core competency in Adobe AIR, but there were few good Adobe AIR or Flash-based apps to port over to the PlayBook, period.

All of the existing apps for Blackberry handsets are written in Java. Not AIR.

RIM announcing support for Android apps via a "player" shortly after product launch at BlackBerry World also added additional confusion and can be counted as a third management failure. If RIM had intended to provide Android/Dalvik VM support for the PlayBook in the first place, then why not provide those tools prior to launch?

Indeed, RIM had failed to foresee the problems of an "App Gap" on the PlayBook and were scrambling to provide tools and methods for leveraging the existing and very popular Android ecosystem.

Also Read: RIM's Android Compatibility for BlackBerry PlayBook Will Be a Big Game of Chase

The Java/Android environment and the native messaging/calendaring apps aren't due until later this summer, and the native C++ PlayBook development environment for QNX (which would truly allow the hardware to be exploited) isn't due until around the fall, when Apple is expected to launch its highly-awaited iOS 5 update for the iPhone and iPad that will include support for the new iCloud service.

[HP's TouchPad: A poor clone rushed to production, that crashes and burns]»

Hewlett-Packard: A Failure to Engineer

Like the PlayBook, the TouchPad was also a very highly-anticipated product. While Palm was never particularly successful with its line of WebOS-based smartphones, there was never any doubt that Palm's next-generation OS itself had extremely compelling technology and the polish that was necessary to attract both consumers and also enterprise users to a tablet which used it, at least on paper.

The HP TouchPad was actually Hewlett-Packard's second attempt to enter the tablet market in less than two years, following an extremely unsuccessful and delayed launch of the HP Slate 500 in early 2010, which ran on Windows 7.

Also Read: HP's Slate Was an Ugly Baby With Windows 7

The Slate was heavy, had poor battery life, and did not have a tablet-optimized user interface. While some units were bought by enterprise customers and for vertical-market applications, the Slate was an engineering dud.

It was a sign of things to come.

Shortly after the introduction of the first Apple iPad, HP purchased Palm, Inc for $1.2 Billion, rescuing the dying company from certain oblivion.

While this came as a shock to many industry observers including myself, the purchase was regarded as a good management decision because WebOS had a lot of good technology in it, as well as talented software developers at Palm that could build an extremely compelling WebOS-based tablet if they had the right engineering effort put behind them.

So we waited, patiently, for signs of this mythical WebOS-based tablet, for over a year. In that time, the competition released a number of impressive tablets if you look at them in terms of raw engineering.

The iPad 2 obviously took everyone by surprise in terms of how thin and powerful the device could be without sacrificing battery or processor/graphics performance.

The BlackBerry PlayBook, while beset with a bunch of problems described above caused by management foul-ups, is still very much a technological marvel, featuring an extremely powerful Texas Instruments dual-core OMAP 4430 with sophisticated graphics rendering and multimedia capabilities, dual HD cameras and native 1080p video output.

Similarly, a bevy of nVidia Tegra 2-based Android Honeycomb devices, which included the Motorola XOOM, the Acer Iconia A500, the Asus Transformer and the razor-thin Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 set the benchmark in terms of what customers expected out of competing/alternative tablets to Apple's offering -- powerful, thin, light, long battery life, and responsive software.

Not to mention memory expandability via MicroSD cards, which is a prime differentiator from the iPad.

So what did HP finally unveil in June 2011, after over a year of wait-and-see for WebOS? A bad clone of the original Apple iPad. To put it bluntly, if the iPad 2 was the sleek and sexy Concorde, the HP TouchPad was the Tupolev Tu-144.

The "iPadski" if you will.

Clearly, HP's hardware engineers thought that copying the form factor of the original iPad is what would attract consumers. Heck, if a customer can't tell the difference between an iPad and a TouchPad, chances are they might actually buy a TouchPad, right? Wrong.

With the TouchPad, HP's engineers gave us identical screen resolution and aspect ratio to the iPad 2 (1024x768) as well as a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, but the device is just as heavy and as thick as the first-generation iPad.

The HP TouchPad sports a single 1.3MP forward-facing camera, compared to the twin cameras on the iPad (VGA forward-facing, 1MP in rear) and on many other competing Android tablets and the PlayBook which sport dual HD cameras.

The device appears to only have a 6 to 8 hour battery life, compared to the iPad's 10 hours, based on the observations of mainstream consumer electronics columnists such as the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg that have formally reviewed the device.

My own personal observations of the device's battery performance with my own use of the TouchPad during the 4th of July weekend are in line with Mr. Mossberg's.

As if the weight and the battery life were not reasons alone to give the device a pass, the device is made out of plastic and has a cheap construction with no friction pad on the rear or rubberized coating.

I can actually feel the casing give way to my thumbs when they depress on it and if you have a tendency to get sweaty palms, the device gets slippery and grimy with bodily oils very quickly.

TechRepublic's teardown of the innards of the HP TouchPad also reveal inferior manufacturing and component integration processes compared to its competitors.

Also Read: Teardown of HP TouchPad (TechRepublic)

As to the beautiful and innovative WebOS HP purchased with their Palm acquisition? While the multitasking UI is visually impressive and is similar to what exists on the BlackBerry PlayBook, unlike RIM's device, it's very sluggish and applications frequently hang and crash, not to mention are very slow to load, including the HP App Catalog.

For example, while I was listening to a podcast today, if you attempt to switch to the email client or another resource intensive app like Spaz HD, the background audio playback will stutter for several seconds until the system releases resources or recovers.

The video/audio chat capability built-into the device is also practically useless. In various tests that I performed between TouchPads as well as TouchPad to PCs using Skype protocol, audio was completely garbled.

When doing similar tests over the same Optimum Online Ultra network link in Northern New Jersey with a Mac Mini Server and an iPad 2 using Skype and FaceTime to various geographies, and the BlackBerry PlayBook using its native video chat to another PlayBook 1,800 miles away in Austin, TX, there were no such issues.

My test subjects, James Kendrick (Houston, TX), Zack Whittaker (United Kingdom), Veeam's Rick Vanover(Columbus, OH)and AMD's Patrick Moorhead (Austin, TX) can attest to this. In James' case, he actually had to reboot his TouchPad because the Video/Audio chat application went haywire and locked up his device.

Rick Vanover provided me with recordings of what transpired during the attempted audio chats. It's not pretty, folks.

The TouchPad's WebOS 3.0 also appears to have shipped with a memory leak which severely degrades performance until the device is rebooted, as observed by Walt Mossberg and myself.

HP is scrambling to get out a patch to deal with this memory leak and all the other performance issues over the next several weeks.

I have no doubt these initial software issues will be addressed and that WebOS is probably here to stay for at least several iterations of the TouchPad and related HP consumer electronics products.

However, I believe the company ultimately failed to execute in terms of engineering a device that would appeal to both consumers and enterprises alike, especially given such a long lead time and the advantage of being able to watch its competitors release premature products to market first.

Who failed to execute the worst with their tablet offerings? Hewlett-Packard or Research In Motion? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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