Things have been tough recently at the Waterloo, Ontario, headquarters of Research In Motion. At the start of the week of April 10, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazardis got into a tiff with a reporter from the BBC, and eventually walked out of an interview complaining that the reporter’s questions were unfair. Later that week, RIM’s other co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, complained that negative reviews of the new RIM BlackBerry Playbook were unfair. I suppose that means that there’s plenty of unfairness to go around.
In defense of Lazardis, the questions asked by the BBC reporter were at the very least pretty dumb questions. There the reporter equated the BlackBerry’s virtually uncrackable encryption as a “security issue.” I hate to break this to the Beeb, but really good encryption is a very good thing. It’s something that other smartphones don’t really have and they really need. The fact that some governments don’t like not being able to spy on their citizens might be a political problem, but it’s not a security issue.
Now, at the end of the week, it seems that RIM is catching grief for the software-or lack thereof-on the new PlayBook. Basically, the device doesn’t have its own email, contacts, calendar or other basic BlackBerry capabilities. The idea with the PlayBook is that you’re supposed to link the device with your BlackBerry smartphone and the two devices will do some sort of mind meld, and shazam, the tablet will have mail, contacts and calendar courtesy of the smartphone.
I suppose that this originally seemed like a good idea. If enough people like the PlayBook, it’ll give them the incentive they need to also get a BlackBerry. Maybe if the device had been released a year ago, this might have worked. But that was then and this is now. In that intervening year, everything changed. In other words, the iPad was launched and with it a set a de facto standards for how a tablet should work and what features it should have.
The PlayBook doesn’t fit that standard, and as a result it’s getting some criticism. The big items are the lack of email, contacts, calendar, etc., that the smartphone has. Co-CEO Balsillie has said that criticism of that deficiency is unfair. But in fact it’s not. If you plan to use a PlayBook to its full capability, you have to have both the BlackBerry smartphone and the PlayBook. This in turn means you need to drop a lot of dollars on the deal.
Sure, you can probably get the smartphone for a hundred dollars or so and, realistically, it’s not going to cost you any more to use a BlackBerry than it does other smartphones.
Responding to Constructive Criticism
Whether there’s an extra charge to tether the PlayBook is a question that needs to be addressed by the carriers. Right now you can only use the PlayBook on WiFi or tethered to the BlackBerry smartphone. Eventually, the PlayBook is supposed to get its own 3G / 4G capability and its own email, contacts, etc.
This arrangement isn’t as cumbersome as it might seem. After all, it’s probably not often that an iPad user goes somewhere and doesn’t also take along his or her smartphone. But in this case you have no choice, and it has to be a BlackBerry smartphone.
The end result is that this choice on the part of RIM will likely limit the sales of what appears to be a fairly nice tablet. It’s a problem that RIM shares with Motorola with its Xoom tablet. Sales were less than brisk for the Xoom at least in part because many of the promised features, including 4G, were to be delivered later. For buyers, this meant that there wasn’t any good reason to rush out and buy the tablet now.
Ultimately, these criticisms may sting a little, but they’re fair. Yes, there are icons on the PlayBook for email services, but they lead to Webmail sites. The kind of integrated email client you see on the BlackBerry smartphone won’t be delivered for a while. Balsillie said this is for security reasons, and likely it is-they need to make sure that the email client on the tablet is as secure as the one on the smartphone.
But like the security questions fielded earlier in the week, there’s an appropriate way to respond and an inappropriate way. Lazardis made news for all of the wrong reasons, and rather than explaining to the BBC reporter that his question was astonishingly misinformed and then changing the subject, he made news by walking out. Then Balsillie made news by claiming unfairness rather than by simply moving on to the strong points that the tablet does have.
And that’s sad. The BlackBerry smartphone is still the backbone of business smartphones, the one that everyone trusts because they know it’s secure. But letting the stress of a new product launch cause problems in this way just hurts RIM and its products. True, the PlayBook isn’t everything is should be and, yes, it probably should have been a more mature product when launched, but that’s not relevant any longer. The PlayBook is here, it is what it is, and RIM needs to move forward on its strengths rather than stressing out about the weaknesses that will eventually be fixed. That assumes, of course, that they will be fixed.