There are a couple of ways of looking at a high-tech product: as users of the product itself, and as investors in its maker. To my mind, consumers should be only vaguely interested in the corporate side. Yet over the past few months, as RIM has gone through major corporate convulsions, almost all the popular online criticism has been directed to the BlackBerry maker’s corporate problems.
To be sure, RIM has dropped the ball several times in the dog-eat-dog world of phones and tablets — blowing promises and deadlines, when such failings are commonly fatal. Yet I have been besieged by RIM-is-dead jokes in my e-mail and by an odd rumour that I can’t accurately source that Samsung will be buying the company, which Samsung has hotly denied.
The oddest part is that all this is delivered with a ghoulish glee, rising perhaps from the personal antipathy of legions of fan boys and bloggers who will fight to the death for their favourite gadgets. And of course, they will justify themselves by citing industry analysts (in June, Bloomberg News cried, “RIM’s options now ‘sell, break up or die,’ analysts say as shares plunge 20%”
These days, I’m beginning to suspect analysts are reading juvenile bloggers too much.
A case in point is RIM’s latest device, the BlackBerry PlayBook 4G LTE
, data plans sold in Canada by Bell, Telus and Rogers, where it is available for about $350 for a three-year term, or $550 with no term), released on Thursday. This is a solid product, an advance on other tablets in certain respects, and equal to most others. It can easily hold its head up with most of its current competitors.
It suffers only to those who believe that tablets are legitimate only if they’re made by Apple, and to those who confuse a company’s valuation with its products. One can add another group to this list: Those who demand a product undergo a revolutionary change every six months.
But anyone trying to compare the PlayBook to any competitor is on a false hunt, especially in the current atmosphere, which seems to0 have decided that in the mobile world there will be one winner and the others toast. The PlayBook 4G LTE, like its predecessor, was designed primarily for business users or those who regard their mobile devices as useful tools. Apple’s iPad, which most people now take as the gold standard of tablets, has evolved to the point that its purpose is now primarily recreational, a combination of games and consumable media, delivered by apps designed specifically to encourage consumers to pay for their downloads.
This is not inherently a bad thing; it’s just that clearly, Apple wanted to lure Big Entertainment to a device that would offer the media giants a safer way to sell their products without fear of piracy.
RIM’s PlayBook is to the business world what the iPad is to entertainment. It’s made to easily lock into a network or share files and carry around one’s important data — this last was the reason RIM dropped the original 16 gigabyte version for the 32 GB.
The PlayBook 4G LTE looks and runs like the original Playbook — it’s the same size as the original and operates in much the same way, and uses the same QNX operating system (now called PlayBook OS). There is only one external giveaway that this is the second-generation model: a tiny drawer for the device carrier’s SIM card, which is what allows the PlayBook to talk to data networks via high-speed HSPA and LTE networks.
The device now includes near-field communications (NFC) and has been given a 1.5GHz dual core processor (the early processor was 1GHz), and a minimum 32GB of internal storage. Its operating system (PlayBook OS 2.0.1), will be upgradable to the BlackBerry 10 operating system, promised for next spring.
Of course, this won’t mean much to the obnoxiously noisy segment of the market, even if much of the PlayBook’s hardware configuration now matches other current tablets.
But an up-to-the-minute configuration might mean a lot specifically to the market that BlackBerry has always been aimed at: corporate and productivity users. The popularity of the PlayBook has often been unfairly criticized in a world where the success of products like this is often measured in the number of apps available for it. But if my suspicion is right — that the glee that characterizes many of RIM’s harsher critics suggests a juvenile mentality — then it’s unfair. The PlayBook is not and never was meant to be a direct competitor to Apple, but a device for people more concerned with productivity. It is not for gamers or consumers of media, like the iPad or, for that matter, most of the Android-based devices.
Although it must be admitted that RIM has, with this version, included a lot of entertainment features in recognition that even those obsessed with productivity must be allowed to play occasionally.
The 4G LTE offers high-speed networks around the world (LTE and HSPA+), and a browser that offers a greater compatibility with HTML5, the latest version of the language that shows Web-based content, than other mobile browsers. Recognizing that work and personal life are both part of working people’s lives, the 4G LTE is ready for both. It has a unified inbox that handles both personal and work e-mail accounts including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, all in one place. This is due to something IM calls BlackBerry Balance technology, which allows work and personal services to remain separate and secure. The built-in Calendar and Contacts apps are useful in managing schedules and preparing for meetings; when coupled with its integration with social media can offer a wealth of immediate information about contacts.
There is one thing that I have always appreciated RIM for: Its ability to integrate the BlackBerry with Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files and attachments. Also in its built-in Documents To Go suite, which can be plugged into a projector or TV using the native PlayBook HDMI connection to deliver presentations (at a resolution of 1080p) while referencing speaker notes on the tablet’s display with its presenter mode. Android- and iOS-based tablets often make me feel I have become a pawn in the internecine wars among the software giants. Seamless handling of MS Office and e-mail is something that serious workers should enjoy. Would it kill Apple or Google to recognize that MS Office is the de facto means of corporate communications? Or are they fighting for their own supremacy in that area?
And, to emphasize the PlayBook approach to corporate networks, a technology called BlackBerry Mobile Fusion allows the 4G LTE tablet can be securely and fully integrated with common corporate mail servers such as Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise, helping to keep e-mail, contacts, and calendar appointments synchronized with BlackBerry, iOS and Android smartphones. This is particularly important at a time when businesses everywhere are talking seriously about Bring Your Own Device to the office, or BYOD
Having long been just a user of technology and never a tech investment analyst, I can understand RIM’s dedication to the corporate and productivity markets. Many of the features I note here are very attractive for people who do not see themselves as consumers of digital entertainment. They want their tablets to be extensions of their larger networked computers, and not separate devices altogether for separate activities.
Because sensibility and personal demands are becoming so important to tablet users, let me make my personal position clear.
I am not in the corporate world, and have no corporate network to connect with; I do, however, receive and send a lot of e-mail, surf the Web and create many documents. I will amuse myself occasionally with some solitaire games or Hangman, and once in a while I will watch some video. This is a rather Spartan approach, to be sure, but I suspect I’m not the only one who sees mobile devices this way.
I regard subscriptions to magazines, newspapers or video sites as expensive frivolities — fine for those who want and can afford them, but I find my fun and news sources elsewhere. As a result, the Playbook satisfies most of my needs. I don’t see the need to upgrade every six months for the privilege of accumulating more subscriptions.
One other important element must be mentioned here: the BlackBerry PlayBook Mini Keyboard Accessory
, $119.99) . It’s a big as the tablet itself, though thinner, and sits in its own pocket in a folder that has the PlayBook in the opposite pocket. It makes the whole package feel a little heavy, but it does help immensely for those of us who must write a lot of text.
The keyboard is physically separate from the tablet, connecting via Bluetooth, and the keyboard needs to be charged separately.
As far as typing is concerned, Mini Keyboard requires some adjusting to its key placement. Particularly difficult to manage are the keys at the far left of most keyboards: Q, A and S. They are placed above the Caps and Control keys, instead of to the right of them, and I found myself typing W, E, D and S when not meaning to. Still the keyboard is a lot easier to type with than poking at a capacitive-touch virtual keypad.
RIM’s only real problem with this device is keeping it in stock: The company seems to run out of it with alarming frequency, which suggests that either there are far more customers for this sort of thing than RIM had imagined, or that RIM has once again screwed up.
Then again, screwing up is not a device problem, but a corporate one.