The pace of change in the mobile industry is so blindingly fast it has become just as easy to misunderstand innovation as it is to overlook product shortcomings. If time heals all wounds, then the criticism aimed at RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook will wane and buyer behavior will provide the final commentary. Meantime, buyers are offering their own commentary, much of it in defense of the PlayBook, often in the form of tolerance for the new tablet's reported shortcomings, and, as was the case for Android 3.0 tablets, a willingness to be patient as the kinks are worked out in full public view.
To be sure, the PlayBook is an exquisite device. The user experience is superb, the hardware is fast, the Web experience is superior, including support for Flash. Some will like its diminutive stature; some won't. Touch typing is nearly impossible given the real estate, for example.
The anti-Apple crowd should be pleased with a springtime full of iPad alternatives, where the PlayBook clearly belongs. That neither Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) nor the PlayBook have as many features or consumer-oriented applications as the iPad is hardly the point to this crowd, who detest an ecosystem that must subsist on the tit of Apple.
The biggest critiques of the PlayBook revolve around the BlackBerry Bridge -- software that runs on a BlackBerry smartphone, connecting to the PlayBook via Bluetooth in a tethering mode that essentially presents the phone's e-mail and other applications on the PlayBook. The downside is that it requires the PlayBook buyer to have a BlackBerry phone. The upside, RIM says, is that it leverages the security and device management infrastructure of BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The question is, why couldn't RIM enable that on the PlayBook?
Several readers said PlayBook criticisms have been too harsh. One pointed out that many products arrive with imperfections, citing the iPhone (it "still doesn't play Flash") and Windows, noting that "not having everything perfect at launch does not mean it will fail." Another, in a message titled "Ward, I think you were a little hard on The Beaver," was willing to give RIM time to work out the problems. Yet another reader insisted that BlackBerry Bridge would be precisely the reason to buy the PlayBook.
Perhaps tolerance is the new satisfaction. More than a day's use of Bridge revealed an imminently workable email solution on the tablet, though placing the "send" button more conveniently is an absolute necessity -- that and "save" appear at the top of the message, requiring the user to scroll up to have the message delivered, rather than just hit a "return" or "send" key on the keyboard. Because the PlayBook is only Wi-Fi-enabled today, using a BlackBerry smartphone as a bridge (or tether) lets users send emails over the mobile network when they aren't in Wi-Fi range. Score one for the PlayBook, then, but this is limited to BlackBerry smartphone owners.
However, one reader commented that because the PlayBook doesn't have a 3G radio, it can't connect to BES, which simply isn't true. It can't connect to BES because RIM has yet to include the functionality. A BlackBerry smartphone connected only via Wi-Fi is certainly able to depend on BES for its communication. For now, then, the BlackBerry smartphone isn't just the most secure way to conduct secure email communications; it's the only way -- unless that email is Gmail or Yahoo Mail or other Web-based messaging systems, including Web-based connections to Microsoft Exchange. All those are workable, but not as seamless, especially with the BlackBerry's universal inbox.
This same reader also said that using the BlackBerry Bridge gets the entire BlackBerry on the PlayBook. No, it doesn't. You'll only get memopad, tasks, files, contacts, messages (including universal inbox view, in addition to sorting by mailbox type), calendar, and browser (presumably for browsing through the BES infrastructure).
Still, potential buyers seem to be saying: Email and other communications functions are coming on the PlayBook, so don't panic; more applications are coming, possibly Android apps, so be patient. Fair enough. Scratch the trip to Best Buy off the list for the weekend, then, and give the PlayBook time to marinate. Enterprise application teams will have an easier time enabling functionality, given some of the tools RIM has made available. C++, Java, and Adobe AIR and WebWorks development tools should broaden the PlayBook developer ecosystem.
While time may soften the PlayBook criticism, one reader won't be so easily convinced. "Ludicrous is an appropriate term for a tablet that doesn't have email and calendaring clients," the reader said.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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