Is RIM's PlayBook Ready for Business?

By  Jessica Binns — April 19, 2011

After months of anticipation, Research in Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet finally hit the market today, on the heels of an April 14 launch party.

Overview

The 10 mm-thick PlayBook features a 1GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, a 5-megapixel rear camera, a 3-megapixel front-facing camera, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 1080p HD video playback with an HDMI-out port, a 3.5mm headset jack and a microphone. Its 7-inch display offers 1024 x 600 resolution. The Wi-Fi-only model launching today retails for $499, competitive with the iPad. LTE and WiMAX versions of the tablet are expected later this year.

RIM made some strategic acquisitions in the past year, buying Sweden’s The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), a user interface designer, and real-time operating system developer QNX in efforts to revamp its operating system and software approach. The difference between the old BlackBerry and the new QNX OSes is night and day.

Now that the device has been in the hands of industry insiders for about a week, what’s the consensus? Is the PlayBook truly an enterprise-ready device? Has RIM done enough to appeal to prosumers seeking a device that’s ideal for both work and play?

Phillip Redman, vice president, network services and infrastructure, mobile and wireless, Gartner, Inc., says, “The PlayBook is a great enterprise device if the enterprise is already supporting BlackBerry. For those users that don’t have a BlackBerry mobile phone, I think there will be limited interest.”

Yankee Group’s senior analyst Denise Lund says, “Appealing to the enterprise IT buyer is where RIM has long been most comfortable. Enterprises are looking to be able to manage multiple devices and form factors with ease.” The tablet’s familiar security features should resonate well with IT departments. 

Demand

Dan Shey, ABI Research’s practice director for enterprise, sees demand for the PlayBook—beyond the professional business segment—in the healthcare, financial services, sales, and even field force markets. “The device can be ruggedized with a case very easily and the fact that the [BlackBerry Enterprise Server] can be used to provision, configure, secure, and manage the device makes it very easy to deploy.”

Lund agrees. “Based on enterprise tablet demos and discussions with industry players, we expect that some of the early cases of vertical applications will continue to be in education, healthcare, and retail.”

Beyond that, RIM is targeting its user base with the PlayBook. “This may seem obvious but RIM is working hard to secure its base in light of all the smartphone competition and the popularity of the iPad. The PlayBook will help in this regard,” adds Shey.

And there’s some good news. In Yankee Group’s 2011 U.S. Enterprise Mobility: Employee Survey, Wave 1, the iPad clearly is the most-desired tablet, with 59% of users planning to buy the Apple gadget. But the PlayBook came in second, with 15% of respondents interested in purchasing the tablet—which wasn’t even on the market at the time. By contrast, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab came third with 13% and Motorola’s Xoom tallied only 7%.

Size matters

“Debate about the perfect tablet size rages on, but we have to say the slightly smallish factor here creates a device that's comfortable to roam with,” says Tim Stevens of Engadget

At 0.9 lbs, “the light weight certainly makes it easier for reading and the more hand-friendly size makes it feel more comfortable to carry. That size, plus the dark coloring, makes this slate a bit less obvious than much of the competition, which is certainly part of its understated charm.”

Boy Genius Report’s (BGR) Jonathan Geller agrees. “The 7-inch tablet features a smaller screen size for those not interested in the 9 or 10-inch alternatives, and this makes the PlayBook much more portable in my opinion,” he explains. “It has a great weight to it; not too heavy and not too light — it feels like a substantial and quality product when you hold it.

Design

While most reviewers have responded well to the PlayBook’s metal casing and rubberized finish, some have noted a peculiar design flaw.

“The power button is more or less useless because of the design,” notes Geller of BGR. “It has no tactile feedback and sits almost completely flush with the case.”

Engadget’s Stevens agrees. “It sounds crazy, but this is, hands-down, the worst part of the hardware. Think about how often you use the power button on your phone to toggle the screen and then imagine having to stab really hard at it with a fingernail instead,” he says. “It's located centrally on top of the device, exactly where your fingers likely aren't.”

Software and UI

According to BGR's Geller, RIM has positioned its PlayBook as the first enterprise-ready tablet and more important, one that supports just about every Web standard and plug-in available. But the device has some drawbacks. “For all the advancements RIM has made in the OS department, the PlayBook’s software feels rushed in almost every way possible,” he says. “From inconsistencies with the UI and design to random bugs and annoyances, the software on the PlayBook shows one of RIM’s biggest weaknesses: its lack of ability to execute.”

Engadget's Stevens found the UI to be user-friendly, intuitive—and reminiscent of HP’s mobile operating system. “Like webOS? If so, you're going to love what's hiding under the PlayBook's (healthy) bezels—capacitive digitizers that recognize a variety of gestures,” he says. “The dynamic action of throwing a frustrating application right off of the screen is quite satisfying, and the lack of any multi-finger antics certainly makes task-switching a far surer affair. Everything is quick and responsive—just what you expect on a tablet that costs this much money.”

Web browsing on the PlayBook is one of the device’s strong points. “RIM has provided a full Webkit browser for you to get your surf on, and it's a reasonably good one,” says Stevens

“Pages load quickly and naturally are rendered in full desktop mode, with all the pinch-to-zoom goodness and snappy motion you'd expect.”

Om Malik of GigaOM agrees. “You can hardly tell the difference between a desktop browsing experience and the Playbook,” he says.

Flash—which has been a bugbear for Apple’s iPad—is present and powerful on the PlayBook. “Flash performance is probably the best I’ve seen on a mobile device or tablet,” BGR’s Geller says.

Keyboard

While the PlayBook’s touchscreen keyboard might seem perfectly fine at first, Stevens says that its flaws quickly become obvious. “Neither numbers nor special keys are available without digging into the symbol menu—even the exclamation point and the question have been driven to obscurity,” he explains. “This means if you want anything more exotic than a humble period or comma you're going to have to go find it. In fact, typing ‘you’re’ right there required hitting the symbol key to find the apostrophe—there's no system-wide auto-correction here (it only works in some apps), no long-presses for alternate characters.”

By contrast, Malik of GigaOM found typing to be easy. “The diminutive size makes it easier to type out quick notes with your thumbs, something that is virtually impossible on a bigger tablet.”

Battery

When it comes to battery life, the PlayBook is serviceable, delivering a “solid mid-pack performance,” according to Engadget's Stevens. “With day-to-day usage, WiFi on, screen reasonably bright, checking out some websites and playing some tunes, the PlayBook has plenty of juice to get you through a couple days without breaking a sweat. It'll handily survive your all-day presentation at the office, make you look cool in front of your boss, then still have plenty of battery life left to chill out to some N.W.A. on the flight home.”

The tablet’s battery isn’t user-accessible but BGR’s Geller doesn’t foresee the need for frequent battery pulls.  “A nice part of QNX is that if there’s a crash with one app, it won’t bring the whole system down, most of the time—that means you won’t have to restart your PlayBook device frequently,” he explains.

Enterprise features, productivity

The PlayBook contains a standard suite of productivity-enhancing features that enterprises expect, including an excellent custom Adobe Reader, and Word, Sheet, and Slideshow to Go. “Viewing and editing documents is certainly easy enough and of course being able to do so makes for heightened productivity, but trying to enter Excel formulas using the on-screen keyboard will raise only your blood pressure,” says Stevens

BGR’s Geller is disappointed that the tablet doesn’t support USB mass storage. “You can't just plug it in to your laptop and dump a bunch of files on it. You can mount it as a drive over USB, but then you have only access to a small, read-only volume that contains a single driver. Install that and the PlayBook shows up as a network drive,” he explains. 

BlackBerry Bridge

This new feature enables BlackBerry smartphone users to tether their phones via Bluetooth to their tablets, which brings all of the phone’s apps to the larger screen.

Engadget's Stevens says Bridge is one of the strongest and weakest aspects of the tablet. “Yes, you can get to your web mail provider of choice here, but the lack of dedicated, basic productivity applications like these feels like a huge oversight. This is RIM expecting 100 percent crossover between PlayBook buyers and current BlackBerry owners, and that seems unnecessarily limiting.” 

Geller echoes the same mixed review. “Conceptually, this is brilliant for existing BlackBerry owners. Practically, it’s not that bad but it’s not that great either,” he says. “With a 7-inch touch device, though, the lines between a phone and tablet aren’t clear, and I just can’t see myself going out of the way to use the PlayBook instead of just quickly responding to a message directly from my BlackBerry phone.”

Yankee Group’s Lund thinks companies will embrace this functionality. “Enterprises are looking for secure device and application access to network and usage, while ensuring they are deploying productivity-enhancing tools and technologies,” she says. “The PlayBook at launch meets these needs with BlackBerry Bridge facilitating smooth and secure leverage of existing BlackBerry smartphone processes and connectivity.”

But it might be a different story when it comes to consumers. "On one hand, we anticipate that non-resident e-mail on the PlayBook will put a brake on the speed of non-current BlackBerry prosumer uptake that RIM could otherwise experience. It is one of the end-user appeal criterion that needs to quickly be dealt with," explains Lund.

"On the other hand, Wi-Fi is clearly a more than acceptable connectivity choice among end users. Our latest empowered employee survey data (2011 Wave 1) reveals that on their work laptop/netbook/tablet 53 percent of employees use WLan/WiFi connectivity," she adds.

Apps

Currently, the PlayBook supports application development via WebWorks, Adobe AIR and HTML5, with support for Java, Android, and native apps coming shortly.

Engadget’s Stevens praised the PlayBook’s app performance. “Apps load quickly, tend to be impressively responsive, and switching from one to the next is effortless,” he says. However, app selection is limited, with just 3,000 offerings in BlackBerry App World at launch.

Gartner’s Redman notes that RIM will release two optional “app players” that provide an application run-time environment for BlackBerry Java apps and Android v2.3 apps. But he cautions, “developers will still have to repackage, code sign and submit their BlackBerry Java and Android apps to BlackBerry App World.”

“Given RIM needs to appeal to the prosumer in addition to the IT buyer, I would say that the PlayBook's support of Android apps will absolutely be critical to its objective to expand its target market,” adds Lund. “Let's face it, Android has proven its success with the consumer in all of us. When I put on my consumer hat and use my PlayBook, I am looking for familiar, engaging apps.

“There's some work to be done there,” she continues. “As long as RIM continues to dedicate time, energy and money to engaging developers, it should ultimately meet the prosumer's interest in apps. The challenge is for RIM to shorten its timeline in this effort.”

Conclusion

Though reviewers seem to think the PlayBook shows considerable promise as a viable player in the competitive tablet space, it looks like RIM has some issues to resolve.

“[RIM’s] new strategy breathes new life into this aging Java-reliant company, and with a little more time in the oven and some smart enhancements, tweaks, and updates, RIM really does seem to be setting itself up properly for the next 10 years,” notes Geller of BGR.

And Stevens thinks RIM would be well served to focus more on consumer-oriented features and less on big business. “Ultimately, we have a tablet that's trying really hard to please the enterprise set but, in doing so, seems to be alienating casual users who might just want a really great seven-inch tablet,” he says.

Lund agrees that RIM will need to quickly bring to market features that appeal to the prosumer. Citing Yankee Group research, she says, “Seventy to 75 percent [of end users] rate selection of applications, productivity application, and UI as extremely important” in choosing a tablet, along with a consistent experience across devices.

“Seventy percent of end users who have tablets also have smartphones and laptops. There are definitely going to be features, functionality, and ways to interact with the device that become expected. RIM will have to stay on top of that,” she says.

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