Four things RIM's PlayBook got wrong

For all of the PlayBook tablet's hardware triumphs, its software troubles could be its undoing

In the long-ago days of last September, we wrote about four things that Research in Motion had gotten right in its initial public relations blitz for its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which ships April 19 starting at $499.

The good news is that those factors are still valid, as the PlayBook does boast strong hardware such as a 1GHZ dual-core processor and a slim frame that measures 0.4 inches thick and weighs 0.9 pounds. The bad news, however, is that RIM's PlayBook has some crucial issues on the software side that could limit its appeal for users who don't already own BlackBerry smartphones. Here, then, are four things that RIM got wrong with the PlayBook:

No initial stand-alone email, contact, calendar capabilities: Quick, what has traditionally been RIM's signature strength that has propelled the company into a major player in the tech world? The answer, of course, is its ability to deliver secure corporate email better than anyone else on the market. So what's most baffling about the PlayBook in its initial launch is that it lacks stand-alone email, contact or calendar capabilities. In fact, the only way you can get such capabilities on the PlayBook is by syncing it with your own BlackBerry device through a BlueTooth connection.

[ On the other hand: Four things RIM's PlayBook got right ]

While this might be all well and good to those users who are dedicated BlackBerry fans, it will impose serious limitations on any PlayBook user who doesn't own a BlackBerry smartphone already. In his review of the PlayBook, the Boy Genius Report's Jonathan Geller notes that while these features are due to be pushed out to PlayBook in a free software update shortly, the "Wi-Fi PlayBook isn't that useful ... without native apps that are extremely necessary in this day and age of mobile computing." The best thing to do, Geller says, would be to wait until RIM has all these features preloaded onto the 4G versions of the PlayBook that launch on WiMAX, LTE or HSPA+ networks in the future.

Browser bugs need to be ironed out: Early reviews have been generally impressed by the strides that RIM's revamped Webkit-based browser has made over earlier BlackBerry browsers. But despite this, many reviewers reported persistent bugs that could hurt user experience. Engadget's Tim Stevens, for instance, reports that the browser will simply crash if the tablet is running too many applications at once.

"When the system was running under load, with numerous other apps hanging around in the background, the browser would frequently and disconcertingly close," he writes. "It would simply disappear about half-way through loading whatever page we tried. Closing a few apps seemed to fix it, but behavior like this is always a little unnerving."

BGR's Geller has also found some memory-related problems with the browser, particularly noting that the browser doesn't do a good job of saving tabs you're using when looking at other applications.

"Once you leave the browser, any open 'tabs' or pages will not save," he says. "Once you return from another app, those pages are flushed and reloaded. On a device with 1GB of RAM, this is mind boggling."

RIM still lagging in the app department: The rise of mobile applications markets has long been problematic for RIM, as the company has needed to keep tighter control over what apps it allows on its devices to maintain its high security standards. The result, however, has been that Android devices and the iPhone have seen an explosion of popular applications appear on their application stores while RIM's App World has lagged behind. This is also the case for the PlayBook at its initial launch, as the tablet's App World has around 3,000 tablet-specific applications, a stark contrast to the 65,000 iPad-specific applications currently available in Apple's App Store.

And as The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg writes, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the PlayBook can't currently run any of the 27,000 applications currently available on BlackBerry smartphones, whereas the iPad can run nearly all of the applications developed for the Apple iPhone. Mossberg concludes that although "RIM also plans to release ... special players or emulators that will allow the PlayBook to run BlackBerry apps and even Android apps," he feels that ultimately "RIM is scrambling to get the product to market, and that it will be adding other features already offered on competing devices for months, through software patches."

Which brings us to our final problem: The iPad already has a strong head start: These sorts of issues might have been easy to overlook if RIM released the PlayBook immediately after the launch of the original iPad last year. After all, the iPad's success has seemingly caught much of the tech world off guard and has left companies scrambling to catch up. But the trouble is that RIM has already been lapped by Apple, whose second generation of the iPad came out more than a month before RIM's first-generation tablet will hit the market.

To put RIM's uphill climb into context, consider that a survey of more than 3,000 consumers conducted by ChangeWave last month found that 27% of consumers have plans to buy a tablet, and that 82% of them plan to purchase an Apple iPad. The Motorola Xoom, Research in Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook and the Samsung Galaxy Tab each accounted for less than 5% of planned tablet purchases. What's more, ChangeWave said that iPad competitors faced a particularly daunting challenge since 95% of all iPad users in its survey said they were either "very satisfied" (70%) or "somewhat satisfied" (25%) with the tablet. A mere 2% of users said they were "somewhat dissatisfied" with the iPad while 0% said they were "very unsatisfied."

In other words, don't expect the PlayBook -- or any other tablet -- to dethrone Steve Jobs' latest "magical" creation anytime soon.

This story, "Four things RIM's PlayBook got wrong" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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