In the midst of so-so critical reception to its soon-to-be-launched PlayBook tablet, RIM tried turning on some magic this week. At a lavish New York City press event, the newly-minted tablet maker showed off the PlayBook’s sleek good looks, along with some of the 2,000 to 3,000 apps set for availability when the gadget hits retail stores next Tuesday.
In fact, RIM’s App World will ultimately contain about 100 times that number of apps for PlayBooks, said RIM reps stationed along an “App Wall” that took up around one-eighth the floor space of the event venue.
The PlayBook’s compatibility with Android Gingerbread apps won’t be ready when the tablet goes on sale next week. Yet to me, at least, the 2,000 to 3,000 apps expected to be downloadable on April 19 doesn’t seem terribly scanty, when you consider the 1,000 Android apps available upon shipment of the first Android phone and the opening of the Android Market back in 2008.
The PlayBook – a tablet aimed from the outset at both consumers and business users – will also come bundled with a handful of “native core apps,” contended a RIM app specialist named Raheel, talking with me at the posh soiree. These will include, for example, Pictures, Videos, and three Microsoft Office-compatible productivity apps: Word to Go, Sheet to Go, and Slideshow to Go.
Yet much of the recent criticism has centered on the “core apps” that won’t be aboard. The PlayBook won’t ship with native e-mail, contact and calendar apps. Instead, to access these services, you’ll connect to a RIM BlackBerry phone over a tethered Bluetooth connection called BlackBerry Bridge.
On the other hand, Web-based e-mail services such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and AOL will be available through the built-in browser, with no need for either a BlackBerry phone or BlackBerry Bridge.
Also lacking in the first iteration of RIM’s tablet are 3G/4G communications, although you’ll be able to connect to the Internet either through Wi-Fi or by tethering the tablet over BlackBerry Bridge.
Painting the PlayBook
RIM did its best at Thursday’s event to paint the PlayBook in the rosiest possible light. Invited guests arriving at the appointed place – an elegantly refurbished warehouse — got escorted down a hallway lined with jewel-toned theatrical drapes before stepping into a gargantuan freight elevator. When the elevator doors grandly opened on the fourth floor, the journalists were set loose into a PlayBook playground.
Between demo stations that dotted the room, RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie rubbed elbows with reporters and editors.
Basketball star Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic offered photo opps, cradling the small tablet in the palms of his hands.
RIM also taught PlayBook-specific gestures. You can swipe up from the bottom of the tablet to reveal the home screen. By tapping in the lower right-hand corner, you can turn on the rear camera.
As I see it, anyway, RIM also succeeded in showing the app development progress it’s made in the six weeks since earlier press demos in March. This time around, you could download and play around with any of nearly 2,000 apps, including YouTube, Slacker Radio, Voice Notes, KoBo Books,and Tetris, for instance.
To build apps for the PlayBook, RIM’s third-party developer partners are working in three different environments–Adobe Air, WebWorks, and Java–which all run on top of a Unix Posix kernel known as QNX.
At some still unspecified point in the future, the PlayBook will also run Android apps, Raheel affirmed. RIM, however, is going to curate Android apps for the PlayBook, choosing just some of them for App World.
I came back from this magic show, though, still wondering how well RIM’s app strategy will actually work in light of the intense tablet rivalry from Apple and all the rest.
Where Apple focused the iPad at first mostly on consumers, it would seem to make sense for RIM to do the exact opposite with its tablets, gaining an early advantage among the huge numbers of business users of BlackBerry phones.
But ironically, RIM’s first slate of a couple of thousand apps will include hardly any software geared to business.
The hordes of business apps already created for RIM BlackBerry phones won’t work “as is” in the PlayBook environment, since the PlayBooks won’t run the BlackBerry OS that operates on BlackBerry phones.
Untold numbers of these existing Java-based apps for BlackBerry phones will get recompiled for the PlayBook, but not exactly imminently.
Meanwhile, RIM is justifying BlackBerry Bridge on security grounds. As the theory goes, enterprise IT managers will only need to worry about securing the data on BlackBerry phones, since messages will be wiped from the tablet when a BlackBerry Bridge connection bites the dust.
But consumers, of course, aren’t directly governed by enterprise IT security policies, anyway.
PlayBook’s consumer play
More apps are out there for consumers and, while it shouldn’t be priced as high as Apple’s tablet, the seven-inch PlayBook might well appeal to consumers who want a smaller and lighter device than the 10-inch iPad.
The PlayBook might also pick up fans among those looking for features not available on Apple’s tablet, whether that’s multimedia multitasking or the PlayBook’s unique split-screen mode for slide presentations.
RIM’s Balsillie has suggested that, for legions of consumers, the lack of a native e-mail client isn’t going to matter. Maybe it’s true that the PlayBook’s browser-based access to Web mail will be enough for many. 3G/4G access, though, is more universally important.
So here’s hoping that a future software update for PlayBook will indeed include native e-mail, contact, and calendar apps, for those who need them. Meanwhile, RIM has already decided to release tablets with 3G/4G connectivity this summer.