When Apple boss Steve Jobs
uncharacteristically said nasty things about Research in Motion’s as-yet-unreleased BlackBerry PlayBook
tablet a few months ago, I realized he might be genuinely threatened by the PlayBook.
It wouldn’t have been surprising. Apple’s revolutionary iPad
tablet had started off as an entertainment device, and has been moving to rebrand itself as a business device too. RIM, on the other hand, had always targeted its products at the corporate users and introduced consumer-type apps later; the PlayBook follows its creators’ pattern of starting with a corporate product and making it more consumer-friendly. This competition between Apple and RIM was not likely to cause much friction until their products more closely resembled each other.
With the arrival of the PlayBook, it’s clear they’re getting closer, and Jobs is aware of that.
It wasn’t Jobs’ dismissal of the PlayBook that looked as odd as his insistence that no tablet could possibly succeed without a 9.7-inch screen — which is to say, the size of Apple’s iPad; the PlayBook screen measures 7 inches.
Some people will make much of the difference, though it’s a mystery why. The size of a screen is a highly personal matter — the PlayBook screen is enormous compared to the iPhone, but it’s smaller than the iPad, and both iPad and PlayBook are much smaller than my relatively small home LCD TV. It all depends on how you use your device. If you use it for entertainment, then you will probably be happy with an iPad. If you use it for productivity, you’ll probably prefer the PlayBook.
Similarly, the rap on the PlayBook by many media pundits is based on another odd comparison: RIM promises a library of 3,000 applications on its official launch date (Tuesday, April 19), while the iPad has access to 25,000 apps optimized for the iPad, plus access to the full 250,000 made for the iPhone, which started accumulating when the iPhone was released more than four years ago. That makes it appear PlayBook is starting from behind a wall.
But it’s a choice, not a competition. After a certain number of apps, it becomes irrelevant how many others there are. It’s as though you will choose to date one girl over another because she owns more pairs of shoes. Moreover, the argument of how many more apps the iPad has is valid only if you ignore the presence of all the devices running Google’s Android operating system, including Motorola’s Xoom and Samsung’s Galaxy, and on the unlikely assumption that RIM will not add any more. What Apple should rightly take credit for is starting the current frenzy for tablets in the first place, a move that was nothing short of brilliant and is in no need of juvenile embellishment.
The first order of business in looking at the PlayBook is to appreciate its technical details
. The heart of the PlayBook is a 1GHz dual-core processor, which combined with 1GB of memory, gives it a lot of power, especially for multi-tasking. Other tablets will, like computers before them, keep adding more powerful processors, but at the moment the PlayBook’s dual-core processor is faster than the iPad’s. Among other features are two cameras, a 5-megapixel rear camera and 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. It’s all of 10 millimetres thick, which is impressively small. The PlayBook’s 7-inch screen has a resolution of 1024 by 600 pixels, which makes it a rich and colourful display, with good viewing angles. It has stereo speakers, and the sound is remarkably clear with good volume.
The most impressive of the above specs is the video camera, as RIM has installed some impressive imaging equipment. The lower-resolution front-facing camera is designed for videoconferencing, but the rear-facing camera with better resolution can film true 1080p video – a first for any tablet or smartphone. Connect your PlayBook to your TV using a mini-HDMI cable, and prepare to enjoy impressive high-definition video.
Another important spec is the PlayBook’s weight, which at 425 grams is about two-thirds the weight of an iPad, making it extremely portable. It will fit easily into a briefcase or a purse.
One issue facing all makers of tablets is their uncertainty over how their products relate to smartphones. Tablets are too big to act as smartphones, but how are they to behave when they and their smaller siblings start to look identical? The PlayBook still needs the BlackBerry smartphone to work beyond the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. To do this you need to pair the PlayBook with a data-enabled BlackBerry smartphone via Bluetooth. Having to carry both items while going about your business is not an ideal situation.
To get the PlayBook and BlackBerry smartphone to work together you need an app called BlackBerry Bridge
, which was not yet available when I started putting it through its paces. Aside from acting like a tethered modem, Bridge will also give you full access to BlackBerry Messenger, your email, calendar, contacts, tasks and memos. Turn the smartphone off, however, and all these things disappear; nothing is left on the PlayBook.
It remains to be seen how it will work with different service providers, and how much they will charge.
However, getting personal mail is not that difficult with the PlayBook anyway, which was designed to be ready for the next big thing — cloud computing — which can offer full email service using Wi-Fi. The PlayBook comes with apps for GMail, Hotmail/Windows Live, Yahoo Mail and AOL Mail. Other Web-based email apps can be reached via the included browser, so most personal email is as close as your next available hotspot. And some of those applications include Web-based versions of calendars and contacts.
As far as native business applications go, the PlayBook comes with the Microsoft-Office-compatible “to go” series of apps — Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go.
When it’s not in use, the PlayBook falls into a light coma, and marvelously doesn’t break whatever existing Wi-Fi connection it has attached itself to.
Also impressive is that the PlayBook can connect to either a Windows-based computer or a Mac. Just use the included USB cable and plug it into either; it will show up as a networked drive on your computer and you can copy files back and forth as though it were a USB drive. It will do the same wirelessly — with Wi-Fi Sharing enabled, the PlayBook can share files easily.
The big news about the PlayBook, however, is not the hardware, but its operating system. The PlayBook represents the start of RIM’s new strategy, which is to phase out the old BlackBerry operating system and start afresh with a new one, created by a company called QNX
, acquired by RIM a year ago, and a new user interface by The Astonishing Tribe
, a company also recently acquired by RIM.
The QNX operating system, originally called Neutrino and now called simply BlackBerry Tablet OS, was designed so the PlayBook tablet would be embraced by enterprise-sized customers. To do that, the operating system must be extremely stable — and it is, as far as I’ve pushed it, crash-proof, and although a number of reports have surfaced online with preproduction models, none of the 25 included apps crashed on me.
Besides, if one did, the operating system is designed to ignore it and keep running the other apps. Enterprise customers would also like all the gesture-driven commands (swipes, pinches, spreads, drags and taps) to be simple enough to use and free from complexity, minimizing the prospect of a workforce revolt if deploying the PlayBook across the company.
If you’ve ever used a touch-screen device before, such as a smartphone, it won’t take long to become accustomed to the PlayBook’s user interface. There are, however, two non-intuitive elements, both centering on the black frame that surrounds the screen. You don’t expect the frame to be touch-sensitive as well; a number of system-level gestures are designed to start with a swipe originating there. That, however, is not hard to learn. But it does become more of a problem when you’re holding the device and your thumb happens to be sitting on a part of the frame that is active. You won’t be able to complete another gesture command elsewhere in the screen because the two will cancel each other out. You’ll simply have to get used to holding the unit in such a way that it doesn’t happen.
Steve Jobs’ comments about the PlayBook’s small screen size
are, in a handful of instances, correct. My favourite news sites show up pretty well, but Facebook, for instance, has a type size too small for weaker eyes. I find myself using the zoom gestures and then moving the screen sideways and vertically to read it. Still, a 7-inch screen is pretty good for most stuff, including viewing YouTube videos, watching movies, reading properly designed content and playing games. Again, it all depends on what you’re using it for.
At the moment BlackBerry App World
has only a sampling of apps designed for the PlayBook. A total of 3,000 are promised to be up by launch date (Tuesday)
Among apps RIM promises to be released shortly after launch will be The Weather Channel, Time magazine, Evernote, Fortune, eBay and game-makers Gameloft and Electronic Arts.
The new PlayBook operating system can offer robust support for apps made with Adobe AIR, HTML5 Adobe Flash. Java apps, Android apps and native apps are supposed to follow soon.
Relying on so many different tools for making apps will present as challenge to RIM; Apple famously started policing its apps to ensure they conform to Apple’s standards, and Apple isn’t even using all platforms. But that’s speculation so far; we’ll just have to wait and see whether RIM has created a platform that can support them all. And that includes Adobe’s Flash, the animation software that is said to be installed on nearly all the world’s browsers.
In an odd move some time ago, Apple rejected working with Adobe Flash for its iPad, arguing the Flash is unnecessary for a device running the Web-rendering system called HTML5
. But the PlayBook browser has built-in Flash support, as well as support for HTML 5, allowing RIM to boast that with PlayBook, you get “the real Web — without compromise.”
Another strong point for the PlayBook is its battery, which can last for several days of average use on a single charge, which can be accomplished with either a cord that plugs into a wall outlet or a micro-USB cable that connects to a computer — both are included.
The PlayBook is an excellent tablet, surprisingly mature for a new product, and one that will clearly work for both consumers and corporations. The hosannas are muted, though, because of all the signs of a hurried launch — the App World isn’t yet populated fully, the Bridge software isn’t ready yet, and the device still doesn’t know if it wants to be a telephone when it grows up. RIM is clearly playing catch-up with Apple and all the other flashy new tablets out there, and in high tech, being first is important, even if the second product is better.
This not to say that the PlayBook is any better or worse than the iPad or the other competitors. Time will tell. But it’s clear everyone, from other tablet makers to potential buyers, will have to pay serious attention to it.
The BlackBerry PlayBook comes in three models, with 16, 32 or 64 gigabytes of flash memory, and goes on sale April 19 for a starting price of $499 in both the United States and Canada. In Canada, users can buy it from Bell, Best Buy, Chapters/Indigo, Costco, Future Shop, Mobilicity, MTS Allstream, Rogers, Sasktel, Sears, ShopBlackBerry.com, Staples, Telus, Tbooth Wireless, The Source, Videotron, Walmart, and WIND Mobile.
It is available in the U.S. through AT&T, Cellular South, Cincinnati Bell, Sprint and Verizon as well as retailers Best Buy, Cbeyond, Office Depot, RadioShack and Staples, and online at ShopBlackBerry.com and BlackBerry from Wireless Giant.