Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hands on with the new BlackBerry PlayBook

The Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM) launched its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet in retail outlets today in the U.S. and while demand appears to be almost nonexistent I did, in fact, see a customer pick up their previously reserved tablet from Best Buy.
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As many TNM readers probably already know, the PlayBook has been pretty uniformly panned, both for the basic functions not included in the stand alone product (e-mail, calendar) but for the lack of apps. You only launch once, and rather than wait until the product was fully loaded, RIM kept to its launch schedule (big mistake).

For a more thorough hardware review you can definitely search online for better alternatives, but here is my own brief look at the newest tablet to enter the market:

Specs, Look and Feel

The BlackBerry PlayBook features a 7-inch multi-touch display with cameras on the front and back. It sports a 1 GHZ dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, and comes in 16GB to 64GB models. The tablet also comes with three ports: micro-HDMI, micro-USB and a charging connector.

Early reviews show that the PlayBook gets about seven hours of battery life, less than the iPad, but probably more than enough for almost all occasions.

In your hands, the PlayBook has a comfortable, solid feel thanks to its rubberized metal feel. It is thin, light and feels solidly built.

But if you want to connect to the Internet you will have to do it through WiFi as the PlayBook does not offer 3G connectivity, though you can use your BlackBerry phone to tether. Is this a big deal? I don't think so. My iPad is the WiFi version, and I've always used tethering to connect when outside of WiFi.

User Interface

Consumers familiar with the iPad will be taken aback a bit by the lack of a home button – familiarity with webOS helps a bit. To move from one app to the next the user swipes from left to right, or a swipe in the bottom right hand corner with do the trick.

Like the Motorola XOOM, which runs the Honeycomb version of Android, the PlayBook's user interface is contrasts greatly with the iPad. The iPad is all about apps, so its home page is an ugly collection of apps, something that is starting to feel old to me, even if it works well.

The PlayBook, on the other hand, gives you a bit of a cover flow look, and is far cleaner in appearance. But, and this is vitally important, one reason it is so clean is because of what the PlayBook can't offer it users.

Email, Contacts and Calendar

Don't go looking to for these features unless you own a BlackBerry smartphone. RIM has been rightly lambasted for leaving out email and calendar programs from the tab and instead forcing users to rely on something called BlackBerry Bridge. Assuming you own a BlackBerry, BlackBerry Bridge uses Bluetooth to marry the two devices so that you can do these functions on your tablet. But then again, if you have your BlackBerry smartphone on you why would you want to do this on your tablet?

And if you don't own a BlackBerry phone then you are out of luck.

Apps

There are, of course, few apps, as many reviewers have pointed out. There is no PlayBook version of Pandora, or Netflix, for instance. To me this says that the executives at RIM don't really understand how people are using their iPads. Instead, the focus is too much on specs, as good as they are, and less on why one would want to use a tablet.
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Checking out the app store, one sees that there is News category broken out into magazines and news. Despite seeing screenshots from RIM that showed news apps from CNN and the NYT, a search of the news category only showed two news apps: one from the CBC and another from TechCrunch. Both were simple RSS reader apps familiar to any smartphone owner.

When Apple launched the iPad, Steve Jobs bragged that all iPhone apps would run on the iPad. While true, users soon discovered that they much preferred apps that would designed specifically for the tablet. Nonetheless, one that first day if you want to listen to Pandora, or play a game designed for the iPhone you could do it.

But the BlackBerry PlayBook will not run BlackBerry apps, though an emulator is promised for later in the year. But a new tablet doesn't need apps to run six months for purchase, it needs them that first day. Why wouldn't the developers of this new tablet make sure there would be essential apps on day one? Buyers can wait a few months for a Wired or Financial Post app, but they need a Netflix, Pandora and NYT app now.

Marketing

The PlayBook play Flash. RIM will tell you this, the fanboys will tell you this. But who really cares? I get to see that weight loss ad but I can't check my email?

I've never bought into the argument that the lack of Flash on the iPad would be a big deal, and I think iPad sales back this view up. Sure, there are those who are in the tech community who continue to think that Apple is making a mistake by not supporting Flash, but like I said above, a tablet is about what it does, and Apple gets this.

That is why I think that the PlayBook is an example of committee think: a collection of compromises, and a lack of imagination. I imagine that the process in which this product was put together was like the committees put together to examine a newspaper start-up or acquisition. I sat on two such committees and they have an interesting dynamic: they facilitate compromises and they have their own momentum so that about a few weeks you can't understand how you got from point A to point B, but the train has already left the station and there appears no way to stop it.

With the PlayBook someone should have said "are we really ready to launch this?" Another question would have been "who are our partners here?"

This tablet needed media partners to give consumers a reason to buy, something that answers the question "why should I buy a PlayBook rather than an iPad?" (or a XOOM, or a . . . )

The Bottom Line for Media Executives

Do you need to start developing for the PlayBook? I don't see why you would. With its seven inch display, the PlayBook is not the ideal canvas for newspaper and magazine publishers. RIM will need to give publishers a good reason why they should care about its tablet when so many are just getting started with Android, let alone the iPad.

Because the PlayBook comes with a browser (of course) your property can still reach them through that channel. And testing that browser, I noticed that websites did not detect the PlayBook as a mobile device, so your regular website will work fine. Additionally, new HTML5 developers may soon be launching app-like digital publishing solutions that could conceivably give you the same look and feel of an app, but through the browser.

For now, it is up to RIM to convince both the development community and the publishing community that it can create a winner in the tablet category. The BlackBerry PlayBook is still a work in progress, even though it has launched today. Until they have have done their work there is no reason for publishers to consider taking your eye off your iOS and Android projects.

But if you really feel that your publication should have its own branded app for the BlackBerry PlayBook, there is some good news. Adobe has included a BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet Simulator in its Adobe AIR offerings.

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