by Al Sacco

PlayBook Tablet: Why You Don’t Need a BlackBerry for E-Mail

Apr 15, 2011
MobileSmall and Medium Business

Think you need to own a BlackBerry smartphone to employ RIM's new PlayBook tablet? Think again. Al Sacco clears up the confusion

Immediately after BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) unveiled its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet last September and the company announced that the initial Wi-Fi-only version of the PlayBook needed to connect to a BlackBerry smartphone for access to BlackBerry mail, calendar, contacts and corporate resources, endless confusion and misinformation regarding PlayBook e-mail spread throughout the Internet like a stomach bug in a daycare center.

Gmail on the BlackBerry PlayBook
Gmail on the BlackBerry PlayBook ( via )

Today, I’m going to attempt to clarify a few of the most commonly misconstrued facts. I’m not the first to try to do so. And I may not be the last. But perhaps I can reach at least a few folks and help to stop the further dissemination of bum info.

The biggest misconception around the BlackBerry PlayBook is that it needs a BlackBerry smartphone to access the Web, e-mail, contacts, calendar, etc. Even Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg has been swept up in the misinformation, having titled his recent PlayBook review, “PlayBook: A Tablet With a Case of Codependency.” Some of my most respected colleagues also appear to think you can’t access basic things like e-mail via PlayBook, without a BlackBerry smartphone.

In fact, you can access Web mail, as well as online contacts, calendars, notes, whatever, using the BlackBerry PlayBook, even if you’re not a BlackBerry smartphone user. All you need to do is connect to a Wi-Fi network, fire up the PlayBook’s browser and navigate to your e-mail or calendar page, just like you would on a PC. In fact, I really don’t know too many consumer PC users who employ e-mail apps for access to mail, as opposed to simply accessing it in a browser, so the PlayBook wouldn’t be any different.

The bulk of the confusion around PlayBook e-mail stems from the fact that the PlayBook doesn’t currently ship with native e-mail, contacts and calendar applications, which means that the average user can’t just open up an e-mail app, login and then have mail “pushed” directly to their device. In other words, average consumers have to manually check for mail whenever they want to access it via PlayBook.

Mossberg apparently didn’t think this nuance was worth mentioning, at least not until the very last paragraph of his review, and then with little explanation.

The situation is a bit different for BlackBerry smartphone owners, particularly enterprise users. Enterprises users who want access to corporate mail, calendar and contacts do indeed need to connect to a BlackBerry smartphone via a “BlackBerry Bridge” for access to BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) mail, contacts, calendars, etc. But from an IT perspective, that’s a good thing, in a way, because no sensitive corporate information is ever stored on the PlayBook; the tablet simply displays data taken from a BES-connected BlackBerry smartphone, and when the tablet/smartphone connection is broken, the PlayBook no longer has access to enterprise info—and neither do thieves or other miscreants if that PlayBook is stolen or misplaced.

(Check out a video of the PlayBook’s BlackBerry Bridge in action.)

Consumers with BlackBerry smartphones can also use the BlackBerry Bridge to access native smartphone e-mail, contacts and calendar so they don’t need to login to access Web mail, etc. However, PlayBook users who do not also own BlackBerry smartphones will only be able to access e-mail, contacts and calendar via the PlayBook Web browser. That’s far from ideal, but you certainly do not need a BlackBerry smartphone to access mail, contacts and calendar via PlayBook, or surf the Web.

I’m not by any means saying the PlayBook is perfect. It’s not. But I’m sick of seeing intelligent people spread misinformation about a product few have taken the time to understand.

Should the BlackBerry PlayBook have shipped with native e-mail, calendar and contacts apps? Yes. Does RIM know this? Yup. Is the company working on a native e-mail client, to be released as soon as it’s ready for primetime? Youbetcha. When will PlayBook users see such native apps? Very likely this summer, according to RIM’s VP of Strategy, David Heit, who I chatted with at an event last month. (Heit also told me the PlayBook would eventually get its own video conferencing application.)

The first version of the BlackBerry PlayBook only offers Wi-Fi connectivity, unless tethered to another smartphone for access to that device’s cellular network. But the PlayBook can “tether” to just about any Bluetooth-enabled smartphone—not just BlackBerrys. So you most certainly do not need to be a BlackBerry user to employ the PlayBook.

It’s also worth noting that multiple cellular versions of the PlayBook are expected this summer—3G and 4G—and these devices will do away with the need to tether. Heit also told me that all versions of the PlayBook should get frequent software updates from RIM, so all PlayBook users should eventually have access to native mail and other applications within the coming months, not just cellular PlayBook users.

The Wi-Fi-only BlackBerry PlayBook tablet is expected to become publicly available in the United States next week, on Tuesday, April 19. Many big name publications and blogs have received and reviewed RIM’s first tablet, but those reviews have focused on consumer users. Stay tuned for a quality review aimed at enterprise users from me.

So check often. And until then, check out my recent post: “iPad 2 vs. BlackBerry PlayBook: 7 Enterprise Considerations.”


Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Al at