RIM recently released the PlayBook OS 2.0 software upgrade for its BlackBerry tablet, which packs a variety of new enhancements aimed at business users. But is the new update too little too late? CIO.com's mobile maestro Al Sacco delves into the good and bad aspects of BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 in this enterprise evaluation.
Research In Motion's (RIM) PlayBook OS 2.0 software has been officially available for about two weeks now, and I've been kicking the tires since I first downloaded it within hours of the release. Later that same day, I started seeing PlayBook 2.0 reviews pop up online. What I hope sets this review apart from those early evaluations is that I used the software every day for the past couple of weeks, just as a typical business user would. I also focused on the little details of setup and use that matter to enterprise IT administrators and the people they support.
The BlackBerry PlayBook was initially released in April of 2011, and the hardware hasn't changed at all during the past year, so this review focuses solely on the new software, except where hardware features and functionality are relevant to the functionality of the tablet.
The new PlayBook software is easy to like. But it's definitely not perfect, and it's somewhat tarnished from its outset because RIM took so long to make it available. So is the software too little too late? Can the PlayBook ever be a true iPad rival? Do you still need a BlackBerry smartphone to get the most out of RIM's tablet? Read on for answers to all of these questions, along with more details on the PlayBook 2.0 software and its place in the enterprise.
First up, the good stuff.
BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 Review: What RIM Got Right
The most significant enhancements to RIM's PlayBook software are the addition of new "native" email and personal information management (PIM) apps, including native contacts and calendar, along with new support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync.
The PlayBook was blasted last April after it was released without an email app, and though it took RIM nearly a year, the company has finally filled in that gap--and filled it in quite nicely. ActiveSync support could also significantly change the way administrators secure and manage BlackBerry devices in the future.
PlayBook Native Email and PIM
I found the native messaging app, which not only lets you add mail accounts but also connect to social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to be both functional and easy to use, thanks to its intuitive interface. Mail setup was extremely easy for me for both corporate Exchange mail and my Gmail Web mail. I simply entered in my Exchange login information and was connected without any issues; same for my Gmail.
The PlayBook mail app offers a variety of connection options for mail, calendar and contacts, including the popular Web mail services such as Gmail and Hotmail; Exchange ActiveSync; IMAP; POP; CalDAV; and CardDav, so most users and admins should have a similarly smooth setup experience. Adding VPN profiles was also a breeze; you just type in Server address, gateway type, user names and logins, etc., and you're good to go.
By default, the inbox shows you messages from all of your linked accounts in one place, but the "Accounts" function lets you see choose specific corporate/Web mail/social connections accounts to see only those messages or communications.
The native contacts and calendar apps are also vastly improved compared to the BlackBerry Bridge apps available via the previous version of RIM's PlayBook software, especially when you consider that those apps were only available to BlackBerry smartphone users who connected their handhelds to the tablet via the BlackBerry Bridge app.
The contacts app is impressively full-featured, with cool new functions that let you check any upcoming appointments with a contact from within the app; find shared meetings; discover social connections you may have in common; and more. And it automatically pulls in contacts from all of your connected accounts to help populate your address book.
The calendar application is similarly well-designed, with valuable features for business users. It syncs dates and appointments with your connected accounts so, for instance, you can choose to display all of your Facebook connections' birthdays. You can easily switch the calendar view to day, week or month, and when you select a specific day, the calendar lets you view the day's events by the hour, by agenda items or by the contacts that you're set to meet with.
Overall, I found the calendar and contacts apps to be some of the most functional tablet apps of their kind that I've ever used. (I did, however, find a few annoying quirks in the native e-mail and contacts apps. I'll share details in the next section.)
PlayBook Android Player
Another notable new feature in PlayBook 2.0 is the Android Player, which lets PlayBook owners run certain, compatible Android applications on their tablets. The Android Player works a lot like a virtual machine on a PC, and in my experience it runs quite well&assuming you can find any quality Android apps in BlackBerry App World or on the Web, and that those apps are compatible.
The Android Player is an awesome addition to the PlayBook OS, but right now, it's severely limited. (More on those limitations in the next section.)
PlayBook Enterprise Security, BlackBerry Balance and Bridge
One of the PlayBook's true strengths from an enterprise perspective is that it was designed with security in mind. And the PlayBook 2.0 software really shows RIM's focus on security.
The crown jewel in the PlayBook's security-crown is RIM's BlackBerry Balance technology, which creates different "silos" on the tablet for secure, corporate information and everything else. Whenever an IT administrator connects a PlayBook tablet to Microsoft Exchange or a BlackBerry Mobile Fusion server, a "work" silo is created on the device that is protected with XTS-AES 256-bit encryption. But the "personal" section of the device isn't affected, so PlayBook users can still use their devices mostly as they please--and IT can be confident that corporate data is protected.
This a very cool, and unique, solution to the common problem of balancing work and personal lives on corporate devices or devices used for corporate purposes.
The new PlayBook software also introduces some significant changes for IT managers looking to secure PlayBooks. Specifically, the PlayBook now supports Microsoft ActiveSync technology, so you can connect the tablet directly to Exchange without a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). And it does not connect to existing versions of BES. (You can find more information on this in the following sections. Or read these related articles: "PlayBook OS 2.0: Four Things IT Needs to Know," and "BlackBerry 10 OS to Support Microsoft ActiveSync, No BES: What It Means for IT.")
Organizations with BlackBerry smartphone deployments can also choose to employ RIM's BlackBerry Bridge app to securely receive corporate mail and PIM on the PlayBook, via smartphone, and ensure that no data is ever stored on the tablets, if they so choose.
When connected to Bridge, PlayBook users can also can get their mail via their handheld's cellular connection to take advantage the corporate network security. Bridge also means that PlayBook owners don't need Wi-Fi for Web access.
And a brand remote control feature in BlackBerry Bridge lets you control the PlayBook with your smartphone to, say, type messages on the tablet with your handheld's keyboard. This feature is particularly handy when you're PlayBook is connected to a monitor or TV and you're seated away from the tablet.
New PlayBook UI, Features
RIM revamped the entire UI of the PlayBook software in v2.0, along with the BlackBerry App World UI. The two most notable new features of the overall UI are the ability to customize, add and eliminate "panes," which users switch between by scrolling horizontally on the home screen; and the additional folder that can be used to group like applications.
I really appreciate both new enhancements, because I like to group my apps in folders and then list all of my folders on one single pane, so I dont have to scroll between panes to access whatever app or service I need. I heard some complaints from other PlayBook users about the new pane system, since it is no longer very similar to RIM's BlackBerry 7 smartphone OS, which features panes with set names and functionality, such as "All" and "Favorites," etc. But that's really a matter of opinion.
The PlayBook also got new LED-based notifications, instead of on-screen only notifications. I'm a big fan of BlackBerry smartphone LED notifications, and I feel the same about the new PlayBook feature. RIM also recently released the PlayBook native development kit (NDK) to give developers access to the LED notification feature, so third party apps that use these notifications should become available soon.
The new PlayBook software also has a cool new "Print to Go" feature that lets you quickly send documents and other files on your computer directly to your PlayBook for viewing while you're on the move. A new PlayBook Video Store makes renting or buying movies and TV shows easy, though the store selection is notably limited compared to the likes of Amazon and other digital media vendors.
A new software keyboard, powered by SwiftKey technology used in Android, gives PlayBook users a tweaked on-screen keyboard that adds a new row of numbers where there used to be only letters, though the overall key size has been reduced to make room for the numbers. The new keyboard also features predictive text, which is a valuable addition since typing on virtual keyboards can be a chore.
RIM also says the Video Chat and Docs to Go apps have been enhanced; I rarely use video chat and when I did I didn't notice any real difference over the past version of the app. I do use Docs to Go somewhat frequently and appreciate that the PlayBook ships will a full-fledged document suite, but I honestly didn't notice too many difference in this app either.
Finally, the PlayBook battery life remains impressive. With my tablet connected to a mobile hotspot all day, various mail going in an out throughout the day and the occasional Web surfing or app download, the PlayBook easily lasts a full day and well into the night. I rarely found myself with a dead tablet, unless I watched a movie or read a book for an extended period of time after a day of use. I didn't notice any real difference in battery life after the update, which is a good thing, because sometimes adding new features or making significant software changes can greatly affect battery life.
Soooo, that's a lot to like. But the PlayBook is far from perfect. Read on for reasons why.
BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 Review: Where RIM Missed Its Mark
I'm going to get this out of the way first, so I don't have to dwell on it: RIM took too long to get this software update out to PlayBook users. Way too long. But now that the 2.0 software is officially available, we can all move on.
PlayBook Native E-Mail and PIM
One thing about the PlayBook 2.0 native e-mail app that drives me mad is that it only works in landscape mode. I've been using the BlackBerry Bridge e-mail app to get my corporate mail via my smartphone since it was released, and that app works in both landscape and portrait modes, so I was accustomed to getting my e-mail in both orientations.
Sometimes I lock my PlayBook in portrait mode, when I'm reading, for example, but when I check new messages, it sometimes gets locked in landscape because the mail app is only available this way. Then I have to unlock my orientation and relock it in portrait again, which gets annoying quickly, especially if you're constantly switching back and forth between apps and mail.
The native PlayBook email app also looks very different than the BlackBerry Bridge mail app, and features and functionality are located in different places. This is not ideal for PlayBook users who employ the native app for personal mail and Bridge for corporate mail, since those users will be constantly switching back and forth between the two. It would have been nice if RIM considered congruity with Bridge when it developed the native mail app.
As for the PIM apps, I really like the layout and general functionality of the contacts app, but I wish it didn't pull in all of my Twitter and Facebook contacts, since some of them, especially my Twitter contacts, aren't personal friends or acquaintances, and their listing just gets in the way of my legit contacts. This contacts auto-population feature could be valuable in some instances, but you should have more control over which social contacts appear in your address book.
PlayBook Android Player
I really like the new BlackBerry Runtime for Android Apps feature, a.k.a., the PlayBook Android Player, and it works quite well in my experience. However, I've yet to find more than a handful of quality Android apps via BlackBerry App World, which greatly diminishes the value of the feature. (On the other hand, I have found quite a few cool Android apps that you can "sideload" onto the PlayBook.)
RIM ran a promotion that gave developers a free PlayBook for repackaging their Android apps for distribution via BlackBerry App World, but the promo resulted in few worthwhile Android apps in App World. This issue isn't Android-specific, or Playbook-specific; it's a problem for the BlackBerry platform as a whole. BlackBerry's lack of apps from major software makers and other organizations--including three out of leading professional sports leagues in the United States--makes it hard to feel confident in the future of BlackBerry or to sink your cash into a PlayBook tablet.
Apps aren't everything; if they were, I think RIM would be hurting even more. But the Android Player has a ton of potential to boost the overall PlayBook and BlackBerry 10 app catalogue, and I think RIM needs to find a better way to tap that potential. One way would be to remove or address some of the restrictions that keep all Android apps from being compatible with the Android Player.
BES and BlackBerry Mobile Fusion
Because the PlayBook doesn't connect to existing versions of BES software, IT will need to upgrade to BlackBerry Mobile Fusion--which is the "next generation of BES," according to Alan Panezic, RIM's VP of enterprise software--in order to manage and secure PlayBooks the way they currently manage BlackBerry handhelds via BES. And they'll also have to upgrade their BES software to the latest version (v5.0.3) if they want to manage PlayBooks and pre-BlackBerry-10 devices via one central console. And even though doing so will offer IT a new, cleaner UI and some additional features--Mobile Fusion will soon support iOS and Android management, as well--that still means IT shops must dish out some cash for upgrades.
It's unfortunate that the PlayBook can't just connect to current versions of BES out of the box, because IT could then support it using the software they already have. But because RIM's PlayBook OS and the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS have new, different software foundations, RIM wasn't able to make them compatible with the current BES software. (Read more details on this new relationship from Alan Panezic.)
And because the PlayBook now supports ActiveSync, a few things may change on the back end for administrators who decide not to use Mobile Fusion for security and management. PlayBooks, and upcoming BlackBerry 10 devices, that connect to corporate resources via ActiveSync and not via Mobile Fusion will not send data through RIM's Network Operations Center (NOC) as traditional BlackBerry smartphones have in the past.
This fact has a number of implications for IT, most notably that BlackBerry devices connected to corporate resources via ActiveSync and not via Mobile Fusion won't use the same data compression technology as they did in the past, which could be an issue for international travelers who roam on different cellular networks. Roaming data can be very pricey in these cases, so the old data compression methods had the potential to save significant cash for workers who frequently travel internationally.
PlayBook Browser, Keyboard and Lack of Cellular Connectivity
One major complaint I have with the BlackBerry PlayBook browser is that it crashes frequently, often when I have multiple tabs or other applications open. And the browser doesn't give me any option to restore the previously opened tabs. Overall, the PlayBook browser is a great tablet browser--it beats out the currently available iPad and the Chrome beta for Android 4.0 in the general HTML5 test--but the fact that it crashes so often greatly reduces its value.
Overall, I'm a big fan of the new PlayBook keyboard that ships with OS 2.0; however, when I have to unlock the PlayBook or the "work" apps, I have to enter in my password, and the new row of numbers atop the keyboard overlaps the password entry box, blocking the "Cancel" and "Unlock" buttons. This is a minor gripe, as I can click the "enter" arrow on the keyboard to confirm my password, but it still frustrates me, and I wish RIM had moved the password box up on the screen to address the issue.
My final complaint relates more to the PlayBook hardware than software, but it's a major issue that's keeping the PlayBook from competing with today's leading tablets: Despite RIM's February 2011 promise to deliver 4G versions of the PlayBook, no cellular PlayBook is available to date.
BlackBerry PlayBook Review: Conclusion
So, is PlayBook OS 2.0 too little too late?
It could be. The PlayBook is now a very solid tablet for BlackBerry owners and non-BlackBerry owners alike, but the hardware is a year old, it's still not available with cellular network support, and Apple just dropped the price of the mega-popular iPad 2, to $399, and announced the new iPad, available on March 16.
However, I'm honestly a big fan of the PlayBook. I love the size. It's durable. It has a number of great enterprise features that set it apart from other tablets. And the new software is, for the most part, quite functional and a joy to use.
Would I recommend the PlayBook to the average user looking for a solid tablet option? Probably not, unless the PlayBook was heavily discounted by 50 percent or more. Over the past year, I've been very hesitant to recommend the PlayBook to people who ask me for advice on tablet purchases, unless they had a BlackBerry. Now I'm hesitant because I fear it may take RIM another year to release the next major software update.
RIM will likely update the PlayBook hardware within the next six months or a year, or maybe even release a larger PlayBook tablet, and I might be more likely to recommend one of those devices because they'll presumably be much more "modern," hardware-wise. But by that point, PlayBook 2.0 might feel behind the times. Which is why it's so (so) important for RIM to keep the software, and hardware, updates coming at a swift pace--something the company hasn't done in the past.
Would I recommend the PlayBook to enterprises looking to deploy tablets? Absolutely I would. The PlayBook is a solid, sturdy tablet option for business users, and along with its new ActiveSync and BlackBerry Mobile Fusion support, it's one of the most easily managed and secure tablets on the market.
RIM's real problem today, and the PlayBook's problem too, is perception. The fact that RIM took so long to deliver this solid update led to generally mediocre reviews and negative word of mouth. That definitely hurt consumer confidence in the company, which has already been degraded over the past couple of years. And then there's the fact that RIM promised 4G PlayBooks more than a year ago, but has yet to deliver.
Today, the average consumer might feel hesitant to embrace a RIM product because of that negative market perception, whether or not that perception is the reality. And, unfortunately, I think that conclusion answers the Too Little too late? question.
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