RIM's PlayBook Offers BlackBerry Tethering, Multitasking, Sleek OS

RIM's PlayBook offers a sleek and powerful user interface, but success will depend on factors like third-party apps. RIM offered eWEEK a brief PlayBook hands-on.

Research In Motion hopes its upcoming PlayBook tablet can carve a place for itself in the burgeoning tablet market. It certainly faces some tough competition in that quest, from not only the Apple iPad but also from a growing number of Android-based devices.

But RIM's 7-inch tablet possesses some distinct advantages, at least based on a few minutes playing with the device at the just-concluded Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For business users who already own a BlackBerry device, the PlayBook's tethering abilities offer the prospect of a value-add, at least for those power users who want to sort through their deluge of messages and calendar appointments on a larger screen. Presumably, RIM will also maintain its high security standards with the device, which could appeal to government users and other danger-minded folks concerned about vulnerabilities in iOS or Android.

At the PlayBook's heart is a 1GHz dual-core processor paired with 1GB of RAM. While eWEEK wasn't given nearly enough time to thoroughly test the PlayBook at CES, the device seemed powerful enough to multitask a handful of applications without a stutter, including a game (Quake, which started out a decade ago as a shoot-'em-up for full-size desktops) and Web browsing simultaneously. The PlayBook offers full HTML5 and Adobe Flash 10.1 support, the latter of which is quickly becoming one of the competitive differentiators by which all other tablet manufacturers try to set their devices apart from the iPad.

Hardware-wise, the device weighs just under a pound and feels comfortable in the hand. The 5-megapixel camera seems better than the ones found in RIM's BlackBerry smartphones, and the front-facing camera theoretically allows for video conferencing-although it seems that, as with Google and Android, RIM's executives will leave a lot of the software creation behind that to third-party developers.

But the PlayBook's proprietary operating system, based on software acquired during RIM's takeover of QNX Software Systems from Harman International in April 2010, is what makes the tablet stand out in a sea of Android and iOS rivals. Like those operating systems, the PlayBook offers users gridlike screens of individual applications. From the home screen, users can swipe their finger through thumbnails of currently running apps, cycle between app categories, and view all those essentials like time and battery life.

The PlayBook's operating system also emphasizes multimedia functions such as videos and music, essential for the tablet market. The music-library interface is intuitive, and nothing one hasn't seen in a thousand similar products. RIM will offer the PlayBook in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models, so presumably those people who really enjoy their apps and music and games and video will have a storage option that fits their needs.

In place of mechanical navigation buttons, RIM made the PlayBook's case touch-sensitive. Flicking your finger along the device's bottom-center BlackBerry logo brings up the home screen. Swiping the screen from side-to-side lets you cycle through active apps, and "flicking" those apps will deactivate them. If you're well-versed in iOS or Android, these controls will feel unfamiliar for a few minutes, after which they become rapidly more intuitive.

RIM executives told eWEEK that the PlayBook will eventually provide enough power for a "full day's work," but that engineering to optimize the device's battery is very much in process. Given how the device's user interface encourages multitasking, a lack of battery power (especially when running multiple applications for long periods of time, as power users are wont to do) could be a deal-killer.

Besides Bluetooth tethering, PlayBook also leverages WiFi connectivity-and in a statement released during CES, Sprint said that the BlackBerry 4G PlayBook would be the first PlayBook model to include wide-area wireless connectivity. Sprint's 4G network now includes 71 markets in the United States, where the carrier is promising to launch the PlayBook-at an unannounced price-sometime this summer.

But can the PlayBook succeed? RIM is taking a risky (some might say daring) bet by linking the device so tightly to its BlackBerry franchise. That potentially offers a substantial built-in audience that might not exist for a stand-alone tablet-but those who own a smartphone other than a BlackBerry might not necessarily gravitate toward the idea of jumping so wholeheartedly into RIM's ecosystem. You could argue that the PlayBook's WiFi capability makes it useful even for those who don't already own a BlackBerry, but given how many people and businesses lock down their WiFi networks to outsiders, that limits a WiFi-only device's use outside the home or office.

Plus, the iPad and Android-based devices have been making substantial inroads over the past few quarters into the enterprise space, traditionally RIM's stronghold. A December survey by research firm ChangeWave suggested that 14 percent of corporations are anticipating a tablet purchase in the first quarter of 2011, with 9 percent of those considering the RIM PlayBook-enough to place RIM even with Dell, which announced a new 7-inch tablet at CES, but lagging far behind the iPad.

Despite the competition, RIM remains bullish on its tablet prospects. "I think the PlayBook clearly sets the bar way higher on performance, and you're going to see more," Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of RIM, told analysts and media during the company's Dec. 16 earnings call. "I think with the PlayBook ... we're going to set the new standard on performance and tools, very powerful tools. And we're growing really fast."

Whether the PlayBook can attract app developers and an audience remains to be seen. But based on first impressions, it seems that RIM has the hardware and software platform to make a solid run at the tablet market in 2011.