Now that Research in Motion’s (RIM) Blackberry PlayBook, their one and only flagship tablet computer, has been on the market for a solid week, the reviews are in. The consensus is that it’s a bit of a nonstarter.
Here are some representative comments about the PlayBook from reviewers:
“[It’s] Unfinished, unusable” [Infoworld]
“[It] Lacks All the Right Moves” [Wired]
“RIM’s first tablet is half-baked in its current state” [SlashGear]
The criticism has primarily revolved around the calendar, Email, address book, memo, and BlackBerry Messenger Apps, which are all dependent on a Blackberry phone being tethered to a PlayBook for them to actually work on the device. Unless there is a Bluetooth connection between the two, the respective Apps on the PlayBook will be greyed out. RIM calls this technology BlackBerry Bridge.
RIM did this because of a combination of likely not having enough time to develop the standalone Apps on their new mobile operating system, QNX, and the fact that it’s an easy extension of the secure VPN connection BackBerry phones have to corporate servers. This latter seems reasonable enough. But perhaps another reason for these core Apps not being standalone is for RIM to try and intentionally tie their Blackberry phones to the PlayBook. This latter will give people more of a reason to keep buying RIM’s phones.
They could just as easily add these Apps to the PlayBook in the near future independent of them needing to be tethered to a BlackBerry phone. According to RIM, that’s exactly what they intend to do, yet they don’t believe many users will want or need to use these core Apps on their own.
But there’re a lot of other issues being reported about the PlayBook besides complaints about Bridge. For starters, as reviewers have pointed out, the PlayBook is prone to memory shortages. It happens when too many tasks are running simultaneously. It can cause App and even system crashes.
There’s also the poor battery life, where Walt Mossberg’s tests got him just over five hours with Wifi on, and some 6 hours and change with Wifi off. Still well short of RIM’s claimed 8-10 hours for mixed use.
At present, there’s no 3G PlayBook, only Wifi, which has been another complaint about the PlayBook. Battery life may be one major issue for RIM in terms of offering a 3G model.
In addition, there’s the poor App selection, the reportedly contemptible development platform, no direct Mac syncing, and a screen that some reviewers have complained is really too small, to mention a few.
With the time that I’ve spent with the Playbook, I agree with these criticisms.
Let’s look at the five main problems that the PlayBook has.
Problem 1: Messy Development Platform
In order to accelerate the number of Apps available and attract consumers, it has been reported that RIM is going to allow Android Apps to run on the PlayBook in the near future. These Apps would run in an Android ‘player’, a runtime environment for Android Apps ported over to the PlayBook: a seemingly emulated solution. Emulated Apps often times elicit laggy, subpar performance.
With RIM wanting to allow Android Apps emulated on the device, in addition to pushing development with Adobe Air, compared to Apple’s iOS or HP-Palm’s development environments, it seems like RIM’s development platform is all over the place. That they don’t appear too concerned about performance, just about the numbers.
Since it’s easier to just compile and/or port over Apps than it is to natively code them, it could be hard for RIM to attract developers to create quality, native Apps with such an arrangement. Overall, this will likely hurt native App development and the user experience.
But RIM hasn’t been too fond of the ‘appification’ of the mobile world, and keeps reiterating how the Web is where a lot of the “core” stuff is done on tablets and smartphones. So it’s predictable that their App development environment may not be the strongest of the lot.
According to RIM, they’re currently working on a native SDK for the PlayBook, set for release this summer.
Problem 2: RIM ‘Approximated’ webOS
Using the PlayBook, it appears that RIM may have copied webOS with its multi-tasking card system. As some have implied, RIM’s QNX operating system feels like a cheap Chinese knock off of webOS. Joshua Topolsky, formerly of Engadget, even raised the issue when he interviewed HP-Palm’s Jon Rubinstein on the Engadget Show Live! (March 25, 2011), asking if they were thinking of suing RIM over QNX for what he thought to be a copy of the look and feel of webOS.
RIM potentially getting sued for infringing on HP-Palm’s patents and copyrights may be one foreseeable problem for RIM. But the other issue, which is present today, is that they’ve lost some respect in the industry because of the perception that they copied the look and feel of webOS. It speaks to the larger picture of a company who look to be having trouble innovating on their own.
Problem 3: Lack of Apps
This can’t be underestimated, and it’s one of the reasons so many struggle against Apple and its idevices. With an embryonic, reportedly messy development platform, it’s not clear whether RIM will ever catch up to Apple and Android in terms of quality App selection. And if they can’t get enough quality Apps on their new platform, it’s going to be hard to convince consumers to drop $500+ on their device with so many other options available.
Problem 4: TouchPad Flanking
It’s going to get even more challenging for RIM to gain traction on the market because in a few short months HP-Palm will release their 9.7″ screen tablet, the TouchPad. It packs a tremendous amount of innovation, from wireless charging to an excellent, refined, multitasking operating system that is webOS. Once the TouchPad is released, it’s going to compete directly with Apple’s iPad since its screen size, battery life, and form factor are virtually identical to the iPad, albeit a bit heavier and bulkier. And we all know how well the iPad is selling.
Since webOS is so refined, with the TouchPad having an excellent aesthetic, and since HP-Palm is going after not just consumers, but the ‘business market’ (RIM’s territory), all indications point to the TouchPad soaking up precious marketshare away from the PlayBook. Not only that, but HP-Palm’s flagship smartphone, the Palm Pre 3, is set for release about the same time as the TouchPad is going to launch. Since HP-Palm is heavily focused on the business market with its Pre 3, the combination of the Pre 3 and TouchPad on the market will likely cause some BlackBerry users to jump ship onto webOS.
All this just means more trouble for the PlayBook specifically, and more lost marketshare for RIM in general.
Problem 5: 7″ Screen
As Steve Jobs said during an earnings call toward the end of last year, smaller screened tablets like the PlayBook aren’t worth the tradeoffs in terms of the loss of screen real estate for increased portability. Jobs noted that since most all tablet users are smartphone users, there’s no sense in making a tablet ‘pocket portable’ like smaller screened tablets try to be.
As Jobs stated, “The 7-inch tablets are tweeners. Too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with an iPad. Their manufacturers will learn the painful lesson that their tablets are too small and increase the size next year, thereby abandoning both customers and developers who jumped on the 7-inch bandwagon with an orphaned product.”
While portability is gained with the smaller form factor, the loss of screen real estate is indeed challenging. There’s lots of pinching and zooming on the Internet with the PlayBook, for instance. Then there’re Apps geared for tablets that don’t seem to work or look good on a smaller screen compared to the iPad. In fact, the screen of the PlayBook is actually only 45 per cent as large as the iPad’s.
When I use my iPod Touch, it does a pretty good job of surfing the Web, video, etc. Especially with the Retina display. It’s hard to convince me to pull out something that is much bigger and bulkier, like the PlayBook, where I’m still pinching and zooming more than I’m not. The iPad, on the other hand, is a step up enough in screen real estate that the jump is worth using it over my iPod Touch across several usage scenarios.
So the smaller screen size may also hurt the adoption of the PlayBook.
With Apple’s iPad, HP-Palm’s webOS with their TouchPad and Pre 3 marketed at business professionals, and Android and Apple having taken the smartphone world by storm, RIM is perched inside the most hostile, competitive environment they’ve ever been in.
Overall, the unfavorable reviews of the PlayBook aren’t a surprise. Several industry pundits predicated that RIM would at least start out struggling with the PlayBook. After all, there’re many indicators that the PlayBook was rushed to market.
Like so many other tech companies today, RIM is following a copy and paste strategy. How they wait for someone like Apple to innovate and create a market, then rush a “me too” product to market. As this article illustrates, Apple has over a 30 year history in terms of its R&D in association with tablet computers. With all of that knowledge and prior research, it’s not surprising that the first iPad was such a success.
And while RIM scrambles to patch a leaking ship that is the PlayBook, Apple is surely hard at work on the third generation iPad, with iOS 5 lurking. And HP-Palm’s webOS has already been on the market for over two years, with a refined look and feel, and a well fleshed out development platform, along with several years of mobile device R&D under their belts (e.g., Palm Pilots).
It’s hard to see how RIM, at this point, will ever catch up, especially with their ageing BlackBerry OS that takes no shortage of criticism from both users and the media. QNX is also not the answer in terms of a replacement for the BlackBerry OS, unless RIM does something with it that really trumps iOS, Android, and webOS.
RIM’s management has the appearance of feeling the squeeze, too. Aside from the breakdown RIM’s half-CEO Mike Lazaridis had on a recent interview he did with the BBC News, RIM’s other half-CEO, Jim Balsillie, on a recent interview on Bloomberg, responded to the criticism of the PlayBook by saying that it’s not “fair.”
Unfortunately, most of it is indeed justified. The PlayBook is simply an illustration of a company struggling to keep pace with competitors like Apple and Google, who are constantly pushing the envelop in terms of what’s possible. In fact, RIM was itself in utter disbelief when Apple showed off the iPhone to the world for the first time back in 2007. They couldn’t believe a smartphone could do all that, all with any degree of battery life.
Time will tell whether RIM can weather the storm and change its course. But with their recent products and development roadmap, it’s hard to see a future where RIM is still dominant.