Several weeks back, I got a call from an old associate of mine who now works for Latitude Wireless, telling me that they had just taken delivery on a box full of new Blackberry Playbooks, and asking me if I might be interested in taking one out for a test drive for a few weeks.
Tech-toy junkie that I am, I of course snapped up the offer, and quickly came to a gentleman’s agreement with them that I would put the new device through its paces and then write up an article about the experience – an article which would express my honest opinion about this new mobile pad device, though I would make sure they got first look at what I was going to say, in case I made any errors of fact.
This is the article, a little delayed by developments both personal and professional that set back the date of its writing, and slightly curtailed the test time I had available for my test run.
For those of you who have not looked at a television over the past few months (because the Blackberry people are tele-hyping this new offering with an intensity they have never shown before), the Playbook is Blackberry’s entry into the newly burgeoning mobile pad-computer market, in direct competition with the current sector leader, Apple’s famous iPad.
It is a notable market-shift for Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company the owns and operates the Blackberry cellphone brand – Canada’s sole remaining IT industry “biggie,” after the collapse of Nortel.
RIM’s meat an potatoes has always come from servicing the enterprise market, largely through their technology for having their phones securely access Blackberry Enterprise Servers to allow continuous, live updates on emails, text messages, contact lists, calendars and to-do lists.
They were a very early entrant into that corporate market, and succeeded in making themselves the industry standard for that kind of business-related mobile computing – a position they continue to hold, though they face more and more challenges as cellphones in general become cheaper and smarter, and competitors like Google’s GoogleApps web services bite into their corporate-service market share.
RIM continues to produce excellent-quality cellphones (with the exception of the odious Blackberry Storm, which, unfortunately, happens to be the one I have to use at work), but they are being challenged but a host of companies who have adopted Google’s open-source Android operating system for mobile devices, and who are producing phones of perhaps lower physical but superior operational quality.
In short, after over a decade of market supremacy, RIM has noticed that competitors are gaining on it, and it is having problems running ahead of the pack because its pants are down.
The Playbook is RIM’s first indication that it intends to get back into the technology race; and a successful one, over all, though not an unmixed success.
The first thing that impressed me about the Playbook, when I pulled it out of the box, was the design and quality of the machine itself.
Blackberries have a tradition of being robustly built and offering good “hand feel” (again, with the miserable exception of my Storm), and the Playbook definitely lives up to that tradition.
Its main competitor, Apple, of course, is also famous for the physical quality and durability of its machines, and the iPad I have at work is equally durable and eye- and hand-appealing; but the iPad, without some after-market holding case, is a slippery, droppable little devil, whereas the Playbook, out of the box, has a firmly grippable back to it.
I also found I preferred the smaller size of the Playbook. Its dimensions of about 20 centimetres wide by 13 centimetres high (as compared to iPad’s 19 centimetres wide and 24 centimetres high) made it much more easy to tote around; on the other hand, the out-of-the box carrying sack, while of high quality material, was so awkward to use I usually just did without it.
The other thing I liked almost immediately was the overall feel of the operating system, which is based on QNX – yet another Canadian-born technology innovation, now acquired by RIM to upgrade its rapidly dating and rather cheesy-looking cellphone operating system.
Once you master the trick of running your finger up onto the screen from the surrounding frame for some operations and down from the frame to the screen for others, you find the user interface is quick, nice to look at, and—again, after you master a few simple tricks – very intuitive and easy to use.
On the other hand, some of the functionality of the Playbook was less than impressive.
For one thing, RIM ships it with the same, insufferably slow and unsightly built-in web browser it uses on its cellphones – probably the most dysfunctional web browser in all tech history. On the other hand, there is less call to use this horror, since you have custom-created applications for much of your internet activity like conducting searches or checking the weather.
A further failing – or, more fairly perhaps, semi-failing – is the handling of Flash content inside the web browser, something RIM touts as a strength in its TV ads, but to my mind is more of an embarrassment.
I was not one day using the web browser before I hit a website that told me I needed to upgrade my Flash version to view its content; when I attempted to pull down the upgrade from the Adobe site, however, I was told this upgrade was not supported on my operating system platform.
In other words, the Playbook is currently Flash-capable, whereas the Apple iPad is notoriously Flash-hostile; but that capability is already half-crippled, even weeks after the Playbook’s release.
A further problem is that, because of the newness of the QNX operating system in this environment, a lot of my favourite mobile applications – Yahoo Messenger and Skype in particular – are unavailable, and the social media applications currently on offer are unappealing bit-players in the area.
Given my increasing Apple-phobia, as the iTunes and Apple App Store sites become more and more monopolistic and customer-indifferent, I am more than friendly to seeing more choice and competition in the cellphone and computer tablet markets. That means, whatever its current shortcomings, I see some hope and promise in what RIM is up to with its Playbook.
For me, a major selling point of their device is not unique to the Playbook itself, but of importance nevertheless: As a media-playing device (that is, a music and video play-back tool), it is every bit as functional as the Apple products, without any of the high-handedness of the Apple approach to content management, where you do things their way, or you don’t do it on their machines at all.
It was refreshing to be able to upload and play songs and videos without being handcuffed by the proprietorial nonsense of Apple’s iTunes program.
I have not yet decided on a purchase in the field of mobile tablet computing, yet, but I would not rule out the Playbook, if it follows through on its promise of supporting the playing of Android-based mobile applications in the near future – and if it offers an alternative to its shameful web browser.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.