RIM PlayBook strikes back at Jobsian internet dream
Professional grade? No. Flash? Ah-ah!
Review "Amateur hour is over," reads the RIM PlayBook ad inside the Office Max shop around the corner from The Register's San Francisco bureau. As I walk by, looking for a printer cartridge, RIM tells me that its new PlayBook is the world's first "professional-grade" tablet.
That's not the most original line in US advertising history, but it says something about the PlayBook and what RIM is trying to achieve with its first tablet, a device with its sights locked on Apple's iPad.
Truck-maker GMC claims its vehicles are "professional grade", too. But that's meaningless – GMC is capitalizing on the public's misguided belief that its trucks are somehow tougher, when in reality there's little in terms of build, technology, or finish to differentiate GMC from rival pickups. A big truck is a big truck is a big truck.
A real professional: RIM's 16GB PlayBook
Released in April, the PlayBook is slightly thicker than the iPad – 0.4 of an inch versus .34 of an inch. It also feels denser, possibly thanks to its more compressed form factor: it's about two inches smaller than the iPad in height and width, and lighter by 0.4 pounds. My review unit was the 16GB model, which like its 32GB and 64GB brethren features a seven-inch, 1024-by-600 display, is powered by a 1GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, and runs RIM's Tablet OS.
But this isn't a competition in which the winner is judged just by thinness, size, or tech specs. That Office Max ad precisely defined the terms of RIM's challenge to the iPad: "multi-tasking, app-rocking, Flash-loving and ultra-portable."
RIM has been building smartphones for the working classes – albeit pencil-necks instead of GMC's leathernecks – for 12 years. It is now promising something founded on the tough and reliable heritage of the machine that made RIM's name: the BlackBerry. Like that smartphone, the PlayBook is designed for business – which might explain why the polished black frame surrounding the PlayBook's touch screen says "BlackBerry" instead of "PlayBook": RIM wants to remind you of the connection and the brand.
But there's more. RIM is going up against Apple in an area where the iPad is both at its weakest and its strongest. Yes, we mean Adobe's Flash. RIM promises to work with the internet as it is today, a place where Flash is pervasive.
People have been charmed by Apple's whimsical "there's an app for that" approach to using the web and plenty of ordinary users probably haven't even heard of Flash Player. But they will wonder why sites they loved when they surfed on their Mac or PC and that are built on Flash suddenly don't work on their iPad. The answer is simple: Apple chief executive Steve Jobs doesn't allow Flash on the iPad.
RIM makes a big point of this in the US TV ads running for the PlayBook, where the company loops the infectious chorus to Queen's Flash (sing it with me) "ah-ah, savior of the Universe!"
By following the Flash road, RIM's PlayBook does something unintentionally ideological, too. It serves you a version of the internet as it was probably imagined by Tim Berners-Lee instead of as it's being reinvented by the CEO of a Silicon Valley computer manufacturer: Jobs.
One believes the internet is a place of architectural diversity and where data should roam free. The other is building a fenced-off society that keeps data in and whose rules state that apps must be built "this way". And that way means no Flash. While Flash may not be open, its ubiquity does make it one of the forces for the open movement of data online.
Using the PlayBook, you get the Jobs-free edition of the internet.
Browsing is through a WebKit-based browser that is simple, fast, and easy to grasp. The browser gulps down HTML5. You can open tabs by clicking a "new tab" icon. And it worked with most sites I hit during my test – although not all.
Hulu.com said it didn't support the browser I was using, a troubling sign. Otherwise Flash content played just fine, while the PlayBook comes with a version of YouTube tailored to the tablet's limited screen and that can handle finger-based input.
Early reviewers have pounded the PlayBook for not having enough applications to download or use. The gold standard is – of course – Apple's App Store with 350,000 apps, about 100,000 of which claim to be iPad-optimized. While RIM's existing App World holds 20,000, it's back to the beginning for the PlayBook, I'm afraid. At present, none of these work on RIM's tablet.
The web seen through the PlayBook's browser: What would Tim Berners-Lee think?
RIM reckons this will soon change: 3,000 apps have been submitted to App World, and the PlayBook will run Android apps – although you'll have to download them from App World not Google's Android market – and also existing Blackberry Apps will run on the tablet using a special player.
Today, however, the PlayBook comes up short on numbers and brands. In RIM's App World, there's no Shazam or Pandora for music junkies, New York Times or The Economist for current-affairs buffs, and no Angry Birds for – well – whoever is its target market.
There's also no PlayBook-version of Facebook or Twitter, but this isn't a real problem: you can use the existing mobile versions - another win for the idea of using the web as is and not as one company's CEO wants you to.
And while there's no Kindle from Amazon, there is Kobo. While RIM probably would love to have the Kindle on the PlayBook, Kobo's presence means as a consumer you're actually getting a real choice in terms of the ebook supplier and reader instead of simply getting served the industry default. This is another point to the open-web team of Berners-Lee and Co because – unlike the Kindle, which keeps its books prisoner behind a proprietary Amazonian fence – Kobo employs the open Electronic Book Publication Standard (EPUB) used on other readers, such as the Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony's Reader.
The PlayBook also has a music player and a music store, from 7Digial.
Early reviewers who pounded the PlayBook for missing apps have overlooked an important fact, and it's something that speaks volumes about how much Jobs has succeeded in shaping our expectations of tablets.
One reason that the iPad needs apps is because Flash isn't allowed and because Flash is so pervasive online. With the PlayBook supporting Flash, there is reduced pressure for those with existing Flash apps to rewrite or for RIM to bulk out App World; the actual pressure is coming from industry expectations that you must be like Apple in order to succeed and the associated perception that not having an bulging app store means you're toast.
Doing the same with less
Of course, there is one really good reason why existing Flash-based web sites and apps should be tailored to the PlayBook: it's challenging to navigate a site built for a PC-based browser on a 7-inch screen using finger tips that you'd assumed for all these years were really rather dexterous.
So while, no, you don't really need a special NYT or Economist app to read those publications on the PlayBook, not having one makes their sites cramped and difficult to move through. I found just one major news site with a version of their site in App World for the PlayBook: a beta of The Huffington Post that strips out articles and reorients the design for your finger.
Somebody out there likes me: The Huffington Post built for the PlayBook
Just like a "professional grade" truck must surely need huge shocks, chunky tires, and a really big engine to deserve its title as something the boys on the building site rely on, so must a "professional-grade" tablet targeting the white-collar road warrior super-size its basic features.
RIM is going after the kinds of business users currently ushering the iPad towards enterprise success, bringing their iPads into the boardroom from their living room. Apple has succeeded in part by ensuring that the iPad works with Microsoft's Outlook while more business applications have become available through the App Store – apps such as Salesforce and SugarCRM.
To deserve the title "professional grade" against Apple, the "amateur" according to the logic of RIM's ads, then the PlayBook should do more than just work with the web we know. It needs to provide email, productivity, and business apps, and hardware that's capable of running these and other apps simultaneously - multitasking - and easily, and it must be powered by a battery that's built for some serious long-distance leg work. The PlayBook has the multitasking, so you can play music and surf the web or work on a document, but it falls down on the rest.
The lack of a local email from a company famed for communications on smart phones has been widely reported. On productivity the PlayBook does come with RIM's word, spreadsheet, and presentation documents – Word to Go, Sheet to Go, Slideshow to Go. These are compatible with Microsoft's Office so you can create or import docs, edit them, and they'll retain edits and formatting when you open them again with your regular Office on a PC.
Many features of a full Office suite are missing because of the small screen – as you'd expect. While that's acceptable for Word to Go, Sheet to Go only lets you input data and save. It didn't seem like there was a way to do anything more advanced, like calculations. It was frustrating, too, trying to land on the right field for your data using just a fingertip. A pen and piece of paper is cheaper and less hassle to carry.
A 7Digital music store makes the PlayBook a playa
Transferring documents between your PlayBook and PC requires the Blackberry Bridge to sync, so RIM is clearly assuming you're either an existing RIM user or have the profile of a soon-to-be RIM customer who'll buy the Bridge. I'm neither, and without scrambling for a thumb drive – there's a USB port in the bottom edge of the PlayBook next to an HDMI port that you can plug in to – I had to email myself documents as attachments via Gmail or Hotmail. Once downloaded to the PlayBook, the documents were marooned because the mobile versions of Gmail and Hotmail on the PlayBook don't let you upload attachments.
Battery sprint finish
The battery was a sprinter not a marathon runner. Twenty-four hours after charging and with the PlayBook only on standby, the battery was dead. Compare that to the iPad's three per cent battery drain after the same time period. Flog the PlayBook for a couple of hours – for me that was an afternoon of surfing, taking photos, downloading and playing games, and editing docs - and the battery was again dead and had to be recharged. Neither are good for the kind of executives who are increasingly taking a single machine on trips – an iPad – and who never know when or where they'll be able to charge up.
Another complaint: the three and five megapixel front- and rear-facing cameras take extremely grainy photos.
Serious side: setting your PlayBook's system preferences
The PlayBook is RIM's second response to Steve Jobs. RIM started life making a reliable, two-way pager that morphed into a full-on, pocket-sized integrated communications platform that became vital to CEOs and US presidents. The BlackBerry won because it became indispensable: it concentrated phone, text, and web along with email from BlackBerry and non-BlackBerry devices, while synching with companies' Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes email systems. It was also reliable.
But RIM started losing its core business users to Jobs's iPhone, and in 2008 it broke the BlackBerry's distinctive design by embracing touch-screen control with the Storm.
Jobs's iPad came out shortly after, and now RIM's firing back at that, too.
This time RIM reckons it's got something that loves apps; the PlayBook's hardware certainly does work well with the software.
All interaction with the software is via the screen and there are no buttons on the outside, except for the On, Play/Pause and volume keys along the top edge. You navigate the screen by swiping your finger: swipe up and you get application icons, down it's system preferences, across you scroll through a carousel of any applications you've opened.
You tap an icon to open an application, swipe your finger up from the black border that surrounds the screen to get out of an application – incorporating the border took some getting used to – and you close an app by tapping an "X" in a small, grey bar just beneath the app in your carousel.
HD video on the PlayBook, meanwhile, is delicious: sharp images with rich and bright colors, while the PlayBook supports the specs and technologies you've come to expect: H.264, MPEG4, WMV HDMI video.
It's all very polished and distinctive, but is this "professional grade"?
Control of the software is important when striving for this level of smoothness. You want to make sure the software works well, that it is accelerated by the dual-core chip architecture underneath, and you want to deliver an interface and "experience" that is different enough to the competition while still being familiar for users.
RIM has asserted control of the engineering and hardware in its tablet by buying the QNX microkernel that makes up the operating system. By owning the microkernel under the apps, RIM is in a position to drive the roadmap and engineering.
That's unlike Dell or Motorola, pushing their own tablets. Dell's Stream and Motorola's Xoom use Google's Android – a platform that, like Apple's iOS, is stealing smartphone users from RIM. Dell and Motorola will rely on Google to set the big Android roadmap, and then customize to try to ensure their machines "experiences" do not look like each others'.
However, RIM is not alone in having taken charge and of not simply buying into the Android collective wisdom: HP bought Palm for webOS, going into the forthcoming TouchPad. HP has now started bragging that the TouchPad will become "better than number one" because it will out-innovate everybody else.
Brand buy-in: RIM emphasizes the PlayBook's BlackBerry brand heritage
The PlayBook is a nice tablet that's got the basics nailed – it's slender, has multi-touch input, the screen reorientates, it has a soft keyboard, there's web browsing, and it comes with music and video players.
Does this make the PlayBook "professional grade". No, that makes it a tablet and means RIM must do a lot more work. RIM sold just 250,000 PlayBook units in its first four weeks compared one million a month for the "amateur" iPad when it launched.
And for all the PlayBook's features and faults, the 16GB version is actually $100 more expensive than the equivalent iPad from a company that Microsoft loves to remind us levies a "tax" on shoppers because its PCs are more expensive than Windows machines.
In this case, RIM's the taxman and he's charging for the BlackBerry brand not the PlayBook's value; a machine that in some ways is on a par with the machine it's trying to beat and that, in others, is worse.
Does the PlayBook provide a potential escape route to Jobs' vision of the web? Without a doubt. Is it "professional grade"? Not yet. Can it ever be? If RIM believes in putting actual meaning behind those two words, then yes. ®