RIM’s Playbook – what have we got here?

Research in Motion could safely be described as Canada’s cellular technology darling. Being able to compete on the international stage is impressive, and a company that creates something like the mighty Blackberry and then turns it into the worldwide standard for business phones is even more so. For many reasons RIM justifiably owns cellular business communication, so when those same businesses started to look at Apples’s iPad seriously (and they have and in big numbers) it was a no brainer RIM would want to get into tablets in a hurry. RIM’s Playbook is born.

On April 19th the first iteration of the long awaited playbook will be released to selected markets. RIM has been reasonably forthcoming regarding the features we can expect to see in the finished product, and they break down as being generally quite good, in many cases better than the iPad2. However, they have chosen to enter the tablet market with a product sporting a lot of higher risk ideas. The untested QNX based OS they are calling Blackberry Tablet OS, a very shallow app ecosystem and an emulation layer to allow it to run Android apps, even an implied dependence on a Blackberry device for basic features like calendars, contacts and email. Let’s examine some of these decisions.

The first, and in my humble opinion most important, of their decisions was to forgo the standard Android based OS and instead use their own Blackberry Tablet OS. This OS is created by the software developers of QNX, a company aquired by RIM and known for creating solid, reliable software. Initial reviews show it to be fast, and more importantly it is capable of amazing levels of multitasking. The video demonstration I viewed showed the tablet playing a HD movie, while no less than 7 other high CPU demand apps were churning away in the background. This is possible partly because the chip RIM is using is a dual core with greater speed than the iPad2, but also because the people who made the OS took care to make it lean. I think that as long as RIM keeps businesses happy in terms of security and business features, this OS should easily keep it’s customers happy. That’s a big positive. Of course, this brings up another point I wanted to make.

The email, calendar and contacts applications are not actually loaded onto the tablet at this time. Instead the user is expected to use “bridge” mode to access these apps from their Blackberry device. RIM has stated that they intend to get these apps onto the device at a future date, but that’s not the same as having it ready now. My old n800 has calendar, contact, and email apps all ready to go. That means my antique device is more capable than the Playbook, and that’s difficult to excuse. If my n800 dies tomorrow, the Playbook would not be one of the options to replace it with because I use the calendar and email functions almost constantly. Big negative. RIM will need to fix this before it can expect the device to move in large numbers.

Another issue facing RIM is it’s app ecosystem, or lack thereof. One developer stated in an open letter to RIM that their software development environment was so bad they couldn’t make it worse if they were actively trying to drive him away. Bad start. RIM responded within a day, and stated they were working on solutions to make app development more user friendly. As it turns they were good to their word. First, they pointed out that the Playbook will ship with full support for flash apps, so if you really don’t want to code using a low level language you can simply make a flash app. Second, they acquired tinyHippos, a company known for it’s mobile emulation and development software. This will allow them to make developing for their Playbook that much easier, and the emulator leads me to the next big step in the right direction on their part.

The Playbook will run Android apps.

For those who don’t see what this does, they have now just stepped over the plethora of Android tablets and differentiated themselves with a product that not only does it’s own thing well, but it can do Androids things well too. Now remember as well Amazon just opened it’s own independent Android app store, and it becomes very obvious very quickly that the Playbook is going to have it’s fingers in a whole lot of apps. You could be forgiven for thinking that the problem of not having enough apps is resolved. At one level you would be correct, but let’s not forget that emulation is not native. These apps will function by being shoehorned into it’s UI by their emulation software, and that means it might be buggy, it might look a bit funny, and it might open new security holes. That last point might concern it’s traditional business oriented clientele. As well, the apps for the latest version of Android, Honeycomb, will not run on the Playbook, at least not yet, and that means as the Android ecosystem matures towards the tablet centric Honeycomb OS, the Playbook and it’s future iterations might get left behind. So where does that leave RIM right now?

They have a very capable device that has bought itself some time in the consumer market. They had better get Honeycomb emulation going toot sweet though, or they will be forced to live in the market with their shallow app pool looking less and less appealing.

There you go.

Would I buy a Playbook, based on what I know right this moment?

If they kept the cost down, and if they put a date on the delivery of the email, calendar and contact apps, I might. That curiosity is their “in” to this still nascent tablet market, so let’s hope our Canadian brothers at RIM can capitalize on it as effectively as they did years ago with their Blackberry.

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