This isn’t quite hell freezing over, but it’s close: The makers of the BlackBerry have come out with something you might love.
It’s the PlayBook tablet, and for Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) the stakes could hardly be greater. With market share for its pioneering smartphones falling, the company desperately needs the PlayBook to be a success. And it deserves to be, once the software catches up to the hardware.
The PlayBook, which arrives in stores April 19, is initially available only with a Wi-Fi connection. It’s priced the same as the Wi-Fi-only models of Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad 2: $499 for 16 gigabytes of storage; $599 for 32 GB and $699 for 64 GB.
It really, though, shouldn’t be compared to the iPad, whose bigger screen makes it better for watching movies and Web- surfing, but is also 40 percent heavier.
The PlayBook’s true competitors are the likes of Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy Tab and Dell Inc. (DELL)’s Streak 7, in a category that might be considered pocket-sized as long as you’ve got good-sized pockets. In that realm, the BlackBerry instantly raises the bar.
Like those competitors, the PlayBook is compact enough to be held in one hand. It’s roughly the size of a half-sheet of paper and weighs about 15 ounces. Along its top edge are a too- small power button and media-playback controls; the bottom includes a micro-USB connection and an HDMI video port.
The beautiful display measures seven inches diagonally with a 1024 x 600 resolution, the same as the Galaxy Tab and much better than the Streak. Unlike the iPad 2, the PlayBook runs videos that use Adobe Systems Inc. (ADBE)’s Flash technology. Its cameras are also better than the iPad’s: three megapixels facing front and five megapixels facing rear, and it’s capable of capturing video in full high-definition.
RIM says it expects the PlayBook battery to provide eight to 10 hours of use, which seems about right based on my experience. After two days of using it for a variety of tasks, including Web surfing, watching YouTube videos and editing documents using the included Docs to Go suite of Microsoft Office-compatible productivity apps, I had plenty of juice left.
While the Galaxy and Streak use a version of Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software that was designed for mobile phones, the PlayBook uses a new operating system called the BlackBerry Tablet OS. It’s fast and easy -- once I got used to the unusual fact that the border as well as the screen is touch-sensitive. You navigate by starting with your finger on the frame and then swiping it across the viewing area. Open apps can be dismissed from the screen with an oddly satisfying flick gesture.
The new operating system is strong on multitasking. If you’re watching a video and bring up the PlayBook’s desktop, the video continues in a smaller window. Connect it to a high- definition TV or projector and you can continue to access the Internet or files on the tablet while your content plays uninterrupted on the big screen.
The main drawback is that the PlayBook feels unfinished. That’s because it is: A number of critical features and applications, while promised, aren’t yet available.
For starters, there’s currently no software for accessing all your e-mail, calendars or contacts in one place. RIM says it will be available in the summer; in the meantime you can expect to be doing a lot of logging into websites to access your personal information.
The exception is if you already have a BlackBerry: A program called Bridge will let you wirelessly view your e-mail, calendars and other data on the PlayBook’s larger screen and share the phone’s wireless data plan between the devices.
Perhaps the most important missing feature, which won’t show up until later in the year, is software that RIM says will allow the PlayBook to run a limited selection from the vast universe of Android wireless-phone applications. The mobile marketplace is increasingly a battle of app-fueled ecosystems, and while RIM says the PlayBook is launching with about 3,000 apps, offering Android compatibility hedges the risk that developers won’t continue to write for it if the tablet isn’t an immediate hit.
No one knows how well the emulation software will work; the company didn’t make it available for preview. And there will be strings attached: Only Android apps that RIM clears will work on the PlayBook, and they will be available only through BlackBerry’s App World store. PlayBook users won’t be able to access Google’s thriving Android Market.
Also yet to come are models that work over wireless data networks. A version for Sprint Nextel Corp. (S)’s WiMax 4G network is promised for the summer, with ones for the 4G technologies used by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. (T) in the second half of the year.
It’s impossible to say whether RIM’s bet-the-company strategy will pay off. Still, who would have thought that the maker of some of the world’s least exciting smartphones would have produced a product this slick? The PlayBook makes BlackBerry relevant again.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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