Mobility investigate

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.

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 its 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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About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

34 comments
lawtd
lawtd

Not worth it

Dragonofdepth@Yahoo.com
Dragonofdepth@Yahoo.com

If RIM is able to deliver a product superior to the ipad, I would purchase a unit. Battery life and price is very important to consumers who want to use a device for a long time without recharging regularly and able to buy the product without spending too much on it like desktop. Being skeptical is a good thing since they did not use the actual product in their announcement. They may be too late to gain a good market share. People have options and they may not wait to buy RIM's playbook.

abc123a
abc123a

I agree with you - this thing is Vaporware. The problem is that everyone wants to beat apple but no one wants to do what Apple did - come up with an innovative product that just delights the customer. Everyone is so busy trying to beat Apple they don't have time for anything else. JDS

johnmckay
johnmckay

Whoa... Who really thinks an ipad is value for money? It's a toy with the odd business app, and way overpriced in my oppinion. Lets not be negative. For a business with existing BES infrastructure this may well make fantastic sense. All depends how it ties together, and the costs. But if this has a secure browser, doc editing, and can handle really high flying passworded docs and pdfs (you know.. the ones the ipad cant... a slightly fundamental businees requirement to my customers) then it HAS to be a serious shout. And it may well be worth the wait. Lets hope we get some more info soon. My ipad went back as I don't need a toy, i've enough. I need a serious business tool that connects to secure corporate world and reads secure corporate documents. And dare I say it.. it would be nice to be able to edit them. Don't get me wrong... it's a great consumer device and I can see loads of use for it. Price is still too steep for me though; try halfing it!

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

From what I have read/seen the PlayBook is slated to offer a business centric system that meets the niches where the i-Pad falls short and i-Pad certainly falls short (as have all of Apples mobiles)in the business marketplace. [i]"freezing the market technique is an old trick employed effectively by others"[/i] Including Apple. business device cost. While you many work where the budget for such devices is limited, I have had no problems selling $5,000.00 + notebooks and $4000.00+ mobile devices to businesses worldwide. I've sold BATTERIES for mobile computers (rugged handhelds) that cost more than either of these devices cost. There IS a market, sure it might not be the average IT department, .com or small enterprise, but there are MASSIVE corporations who don't even flinch at the idea of dropping close to half a million on devices for their C-Level staff ever few years. I can think of 10 companies in 5 seconds, right off the top of my head, that wouldn't even bat an eye at taking a million dollar 'test drive' to check them out. I suppose that's why I am in sales though, there's ALWAYS a market no matter what the mainstream feel. This is not designed FOR the mainstream, but the i-Pad doesn't come close to fitting the needs of the c-Level globe trotter either. It's one of those sell 1 million for $100 vs 1/4 million at $500 things that most common folks, like us, often just don't get. Less devices, much more revenue, fewer support calls, fewer issues due to fewer devices on the market. Profit margin vs mass marketing.

enghua85
enghua85

Seriously sounds like a worried Apple fan to me...this review sounds so lop-sided..

jared150
jared150

Talk about playing Devil's advocate. You're a fool if you think manufacturers are going to relegate themselves to single core old tech processors. Smartphones are already moving into the dual-core arena, why in the world would tablets, which are more power intensive, stick with old tech? If the tablet gets 8 hours of life instead of 10, but runs apps and completes tasks that single core processors are unable to handle smoothly, people will upgrade. One only needs to look at the smart phone evolution to witness that. All we really know, is that we don't know much yet. But what we do know sounds great. Though I'm sure Apple with up the ante come spring with a new iPad release. Instead of trashing a tablet for it's frankly incredible specs, let's wait and see if RIM follows through on what they are promising. I agree with the app concerns, but every new platform has to wage this battle to attract apps: ease of development, openness, international paid app opportunities, and platform potential along with a little suaveness go a long way to jump starting this process. You cannot argue RIM isn't making a good, albeit early case for this new platform. Please, stop with the negative outlook on things you have no idea about. None of us do. Lets wait and see, and agree RIM has passed the first stage of the PR battle. Also, RIM would have been a fool to wait another 4 months to announce this product. This will stem some sales of the iPad, which makes this the right call. They have nothing to lose by announcing now, and everything to gain.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

Windering. They call it "PlayBook" which would say it's more for the consumer. But RIM has always been more business than consumer. Ease of use has always been an issue with BlackBerries but if my sister-in-law [who's not much better than a computer novice] can figure things out, ease of use isn't critical. Ofg course the downside is that it won't be out for 4+ months. It also gives third party developers plenty of time to get PB compatible apps. As well as any kinks it needs to clear up. [Flash dosn't work well on a smarphone? Probably not strong enough.]

wolfshades
wolfshades

I'm as curious as you when it comes to wondering about battery life. Also, storage - what's the max we can put on it, with SD cards and the like? If it's anything less than 64 GB it's a non-starter (for me anyway). One thing I know: if our organization adopts it, the executives won't be too happy because you know one of the first things we'll use BES to do is lock down the apps. So...count on there being no games allowed.

Dave A Ef
Dave A Ef

Hmmm... still need a laptop and a Playbook. That's a problem. If RIM was smart and to get past the battery, cost, and ease-of-use issues (as compared to iPad) then it would pre-load OpenOffice, Thunderbird with Lightning add-on and Google Calendar sync, and convince the good folks at Mozilla to get the task integration of Lightning with Google Tasks DONE. Then, I don't need a laptop. Now... then RIM is sticking it to Apple, Microsoft, Google (to a much lesser extent), and has a true value prop in the business market ... because they ain't gonna resolve the battery, apps, and usability issues "by early 2011"...

rjones
rjones

BB apps will be supported and the new SDK will allow Android and iOS app developers to easily port their apps to BB. SDK being released several months before the device hits also gives good lead time on this. Biggest issue is not having this in by Holidays.

JamesRL
JamesRL

If he had one in his hands to play with. But the longer you are in the industry the more suspicious you become when there is a tremendous amount of hype and no shipping product. Microsoft seems to be the expert at this type of thing - they make an announcement well before they have a product to freeze, delay or confuse the market.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

not good for the businesses that may have seen this announcement and said "this looks great, let's waits." My job is to help them realize that this tablet is not nearly as feature-complete or potentially game-changing as RIM is promising, so that they don't fall for the "market freeze" trick and end up waiting for a product that is mostly vapor-ware at this point.

ErikRichter
ErikRichter

PlayBook could also mean strategy, as in business strategy. I am a happy iPad owner and my company tested the iPad for end user use. The powers that be nixed it because of too much unrestricted data able to be housed on the iPad itself and lack of enterprise control like the iPhone (the iPhone is our company standard smartphone). If RIM can get the security down and make a useable interface, price may not be such a huge factor if Corporate IT is buying...

Digital Cowboy
Digital Cowboy

Based on RIM's statements, none of the current BlackBerry apps will work on the tablet without at least a little tinkering from the developers. However, the new HTML5 apps SDK will apparently make it pretty easy to make apps that work for both BB phones and the PlayBook.

jorge.blat.palacios
jorge.blat.palacios

My take is: 1. I believe they have called it Playbook (as awful as it may sound) because it is a CnO toy where n stands for E,F,I,T, etc. Just like the iPad. Personally, I would have kept the name as Blackberry Pad or Blackpad but hey, there must be some marketing science behind their choice. 2. Specs wise, it is rather good. The three key features that impressed me are: - It has cameras (1st gen iPad doesn't), - It has the first Dual Core processor (1st gen iPad doesn't) - The screen is smaller than the iPad at 7" and that makes me think both Dell (their Streak started at 5") and Apple (at 9.7") got it wrong with the screen size. At the end of the day, more choice, more competition. And that is great news for us consumers.

MLFManager
MLFManager

rather, it's a sound marketing strategy for RIM. If they have a device that seems to out-distance the iPad from a business perspective, as this device seems to do, why would they sit on their hands and allow their potential customer base to commit to the iPad. As an IT professional, I appreciate the fact that I have the information early so that I can plan accordingly. I don't just run out and grab the latest and greatest devices for my company, I need to plan and budget for such a change well in advance, and if I know there is a viable alternative coming to market in a relatively short time, I may well hold off on buying any iPads. Whereas is it true that the device is currently vapour-ware, that is the way most ?high-tech? things are marketed these days. The nuts and bolts manufacturing can't keep up with marketing and consumer demand for information. If they hadn't made the announcement themselves and provided consumers with facts, I guarantee that in less than a month the internet chat rooms would have been awash with rumours and speculation anyway, so why not get ahead of that.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

I thought you presented a balanced analysis of the data at hand. etu

jared150
jared150

I agree it's not going to be something revolutionary as the iPad originally was when it released. It's not a quantum leap forward. But it's evolving in the right direction, and if the full enterprise support and bluetooth sync-to-phone features work as advertised, it could be well worth it for the professional. We just don't know yet. This is exactly the sort of discord RIM wanted to sow among potential iPad buyers. IT departments I think would do themselves a favor by postponing any firm decisions until a full review can be made, unless a tablet pc is required *now*, which then it's a non issue. App stores are going to be the deciding factor for many, and people will still buy the iPad for that reason alone until RIM makes a convincing case they have a marketplace that is worthy of competing... thus the iPad in the eyes of those buyers is the sure choice and this announcement doesn't mean much. But for some, it's worth the wait in my honest opinion. My 2 cents. I apologize for the harshness of my first response.

nwallette
nwallette

Again with all the "IT'S A TOY!" comments. Despite the fact that real-world use of the iPad, in actual businesses, doing actual business-y things, has proven there is more to it than fart apps and card games. As people are weened off the KB/mouse input model, this is a form factor that will take off in many market segments. Haven't you guys seen Star Trek?

wolfshades
wolfshades

Not too sure about the screen size of the Playbook. The screen size of the iPad is ideal, depending on what you're using it for. For instance, when reading a book, you get much more real estate per page, and that's a good thing. It's one of the many reasons I jumped from the Sony PRS600 reader to the iPad. I don't know what it will be like to read books on the Playbook. If it's anything like the Sony device, it'll be enough to keep me away. Not sure "Playbook" is a good nane for it though. A lot of executives will want to purchase one, but it will be hard to defend the expense with a cheesy name like that. "Blackpad" may have been marginaly better, but you can understand why RIM didn't choose it: it would be an unconscious bow to Apple.

lynettema
lynettema

As was said in the blog, RIM does a lot of things right but if they do what Apple did with the touch and keep the prices out of reach this will be another huge failure. I liked the idea of keep Blackpad as the name and I like the specs but I'm afraid pricing might be a big issue.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Typical C level buzz word taken straight form a focus group that serves caviar and single malt instead of sandwiches and pop. No, I am not claiming to be one of those guys (far from it!), but have spent a lot of time working in their market and it is humbling as well as sickening. It used to be a small niche but these days they are everywhere. There is another niche even above that market level, where Apple and RIM won't even think to venture, but the four or five players that dominate the $5K+ device world will always thrive. Where there's a device there's a marketplace, it's just so far over OUR heads that we don't see it.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

I thought it was balanced. I was replying to his unnecessary defense of his article.

wolfshades
wolfshades

RIM presented their full-on promotion, and Jason provided the caution. I call that balanced.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Nope. But this will, which is exactly the market segment it is designed for. It seems to me that most people posting here feel that they are the pinnacle of the IT market and if a device is too expensive or too small for their needs, it has no place. In reality, these consumer devices, i-Pad etc. are the LOW end of the market, mass consumer stuff found in retail stores. I wouldn't expect to find GOOD devices at Future Shop, anything higher end is found through manufacturers distribution channels, outside of the big box world.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

It is aimed at a totally different market segment, not the consumer. They sell FAR more expensive devices very easily, where i-Pad doesn't even make it to the consideration list. Would you buy a $3500.00 smart phone with a $300 battery? Of course not. But they sell THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of them to the right marketplace, where again standard smartphones/i-Phones aren't even in for consideration. Not everything has to appeal to the mass consumer market in order to be successful.