The Era of Beta Hardware

By  |  Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 3:25 pm

My Technologizer column this week is a hands-on look at RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Like other reviewers, I was startled by the lack of full-blown e-mail, disappointed by Flash Player’s quirkiness, and bedeviled by bugs. All of which led me to what seems to be a near-universal conclusion among PlayBook reviewers: you probably don’t want to buy this thing yet.

Still, there’s much that remains appealing about the PlayBook. The hardware is nice and the WebOS-like interface is fun. With a serious software update or three–and more apps–today’s disappointing PlayBook could be the powerful, professional-grade tablet that RIM has been bragging about for months. It’s just that the company essentially released an unfinished product, presumably because it was so very anxious to get into the tablet market before other iPad alternatives had a chance to get an edge.

Motorola’s thinking with the Xoom seems to have been similar: It shipped a tablet with a 3G data connection and a promise of a free 4G upgrade and a MicroSD slot that didn’t work. And even though the Xoom, like the PlayBook, touts Flash as a core advantage, it didn’t have it at all at first, and is still on a beta version which wasn’t so hot when I tried it.

Software companies release unfinished products all the time, of course–it’s just that they label them as betas and don’t charge for them. Google is even doing something similar with its CR-48 Chrome notebook. RIM and Motorola, however, aren’t cheerfully acknowledging that their tablets are less than complete, and they’re not offering a price break.

I’m guessing that the trend will only continue. For one thing, companies are super-anxious to get in on the tablet business and other categories that feel like they’re part of the post-PC age. For another, it must be awfully tempting for them to think to themselves that they can can fix whatever’s wrong by pushing out post-sale software updates.

As long as the people who buy these products understand what they are and aren’t getting, it’s fine. And I’m not arguing that Motorola and RIM should be giving away the Xoom and the PlayBook. But what if companies that released beta hardware said something like “This isn’t quite ready for prime time, but we figured some of you would like it sooner rather than later” and offered some token of appreciation to the earliest adopters–say, a $100 app-store credit?

[UPDATE: John Gruber of Daring Fireball linked to this post with some comments which I appreciate, even though he’s disagreeing with me. John complains about reviewers who grade tablets on a curve and therefore give a pass to tablets that aren’t remotely as coherent, polished, and usable as the iPad. This particular post isn’t my PlayBook review, which is why I didn’t enumerate all of its problems —this one, over on, is. In it, I say that the PlayBook “isn’t in any shape to be seen in public,” and that I wouldn’t buy one.  I also say that the iPad is the only tablet that doesn’t feel like an experiment. And in another recent piece, I pointed out that there really isn’t such a thing as a tablet market yet–there’s an iPad market, and a bunch of disappointments.

John also quotes me saying that it’s possible that a few software upgrades will turn the PlayBook into the professional product that RIM has been bragging about, and then says that the market will have passed the PlayBook by before that happens. He may well be right–I said that software upgrades “could” greatly improve the PlayBook, not that it’s the likely outcome…or that even a much-improved PlayBook would be an iPad killer.

For what it’s worth, my statement that software upgrades could meaningfully improve the PlayBook wasn’t just a hedge; it was based on having used the tablet this week and–for all its major flaws–liking some things about it. I’ve used irredeemably rotten products; this isn’t one of them. I’m not making odds on whether RIM will fix the PlayBook–and nothing it’s said about the product indicates that it understands all of its flaws–but the opportunity exists.]


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61 Comments For This Post

  1. MarCow Says:

    Looks like your link to the PlayBook review is actually to the DF article…

  2. brisance Says:

    I think this may be it.,8599,…

  3. Plist Says:


  4. Bryne Says:

    I don’t think Gruber’s disagreeing with you (having read this article and your full PB review) so much as grousing about an entire generation of complacent reviewers and the “dawning of the age of beta hardware” creating a willing-to-pay consumer QA department.

    These products are too frequently getting a pass for hitting market in these states, even with some very redeeming qualities. The era of perpetually-beta software has been rocky but led to some great innovation through minimally viable products, but software developers aren’t afraid to admit that. Why isn’t RIM trumpeting its Playbook beta test?

  5. Wren Says:

    Because they're charging hundreds of dollars for this particular "beta."

  6. avatar139 Says:

    Not to mention what I feel to be an unfortunately high level of arrogance displayed by RIMs management when posting Blog/Forum commentary on their developer site as they still don't seem to have grasped that developers don't view it as a "privilege" simply to design applications for BlackBerry anymore, so it's been far too much of an uphill battle dealing with the SDK hoops most developers to want to bother with!

    Case in point here:

  7. Dave Barnes Says:

    "the tablet business"
    No, the iPad business.

  8. Dave Says:

    Yes, my reaction was that Mr Gruber was talking about the generic Malt Wossburg level of what is presented as a formal review in a very prestigious publication.

  9. @faustshausuk Says:

    Tablets aside, let's also lump in the Nintendo 3DS with this "beta hardware" thing. Too often while navigating the device's operating system, you are presented with an error message saying the feature won't be available till a future upgrade – upgrades that don't look to be coming till late May.

    Hardware and software, the current trend of releasing unfinished products and using customers as paying beta testers is abhorrent and needs to end.

  10. brisance Says:,8599,…

  11. Gretchen B. Says:

    C'mon McCracken! Start calling a spad "a spade!" What is it with this "potentially promising future" drivel?

  12. JGowan Says:

    Gruber is upset (rightly so) that there is such an obvious double-standard. What Apple does is literally torn apart and looked at under a microscope, looking for the smallest flaws to bang the drums over. Others' efforts are given glaring passes and not held to anywhere-near the same impossible standard that Apple faces with every hardware and software update it pushes out to the world. Why? As he made clear: Moto, Rim, HP, etc… all are charging real money for their experience. It is the Bigs, the Show — yet H McC and many others are quite comfortable with not really kicking A and taking Names like they would if Apple's iPad 2 had been anything less than stellar. Crazy but true.

  13. JGowan Says:

    Well I just read McCracken's Time article (I had to hunt for it — his link for it is actually back to Gruber's post) — I've got to hand it to Harry — you made your points without pulling too many punches and I didn't get the impression you were too happy of RIM's shortcomings with Playbook. Had I had the link, I would've written the above post a bit different. I wish that your site had a way to Edit of Delete posts.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    Thanks for the kind words and the heads up on the bad link–I just fixed it.

  15. Mike Cerm Says:

    I sort of agree with all of your points, but there's a huge, glaring counterexample: Android. Despite its lack of polish, its lack of compelling software, the hardware and software fragmentation, and the poor support (manufacturers not delivering software updates), people are actually buying Android handsets in increasing numbers, and Android sales have surpassed iPhone sales.

    I don't know why so many people are buying Android phones, honestly, but it's happening. Just like the PC market in the '80s, Apple had a big head-start technologically, but somehow the beige boxes won. It's happening in the phone market now, and it could just as easily happen in the tablet market, too.

  16. David Says:

    I'll field that. BOGO and Cricket. They are cheap and told that they offer equivalent functionality. The beige boxes won because Apple didn't offer equivalent functionality and cost more. Today, Apple has the pricing, the hardware and the apps.

    Huge difference.

  17. Mike Cerm Says:

    That may be true, but then how do you account for the fact that, in the smartphone market, Android is winning? Perhaps having "the hardware" is not as important as having a lot of different hardware, because not everyone has the same needs. Also, I'd argue that even the apps don't matter, because most people only really have 5 or 10 apps that they actually need (and most of those are already built-in to the operating system).

    Again, I'm not saying that Android is better than iOS, I"m simply saying that iPhone has lost its edge in the smartphone market (to a competitor that is, in many ways, inferior). Two years from now, the same thing could happen in the tablet market.

  18. Scruff Says:

    Two things :-
    * in turns of profit, Apple wins hands down. They are making money hand-over-fist with the iPhone, something their competitors are not (yet). The competitors are competing against other Android manufacturers, hence the cheapness (in cost at least) of Android alternatives.
    * you mention 'competitor'. There are tens of manufacturers producing android phones, all sharing the profit and winnings of Android. As a result, none of them (competitors) are winning. Android itself may be bigger than IOS, but I'm betting that Apple is better off in the equation than most Android manufacturers.

  19. chandra Says:

    Except that you're wrong about the stats.
    Read the news.
    iOS leads by a healthy margin.
    Also Android is not a product, it's an OS.
    Tell us which Android PHONE-MAKER is outselling the iPhone.
    Tell us which Android TABLET MAKER is outselling the iPad.
    Then we can boogie about stats and reality.

  20. crackedcactus Says:

    You once again make a fallacy in assuming that market share equates to profit. Apple by itself makes more profit on each device sold, let alone by the attach rate of applications downloaded per device.

    It's kinda like the console market in that it's not just about volume of product sold through to consumers, but the amount of software per console that's a key indicator of a console success. The Wii has sold a ton of consoles, but it's attach rate for software hovers around 2.8 titles per console. The 360 has middling volume sold (above PS3 but far below the Wii), yet has an attach rate of over 10 games per system.

    Rovio (Angry Birds) developer said it best about Android in that while there are plenty of handsets the differences between handset to handset and the lack of UI/hardware conformity means most of their actual profit comes from iOS development rather then Android development. They are not going to ignore Android, but it (Android) is most definitely a secondary market compared to iOS.

  21. Rich Wells Says:

    Android licensees are not a team against Apple, so I think it doesn't make sense to say Android is winning due to market share. It makes more sense to compare one company to another. In that case, how do you say who's winning? Market share? I would dispute that. I would say the highest total profit determines the winner.

    You'd argue that apps don't matter, but statistics shows that it does. People who own iOS devices are much more likely to download more apps, pay for apps, and use apps more often. Various reports and studies have shown that.

    Concerning the tablet market, you're forgetting a huge crucial factor. Carrier subsidies are going to play a very insignificant role, so Apple will have a big advantage on price due to economies of scale. Combine that with the iTunes ecosystem, something that Andriod and other OS's have yet to attempt matching, and the tablet market seems to be destined to look more like the mp3 player market than the smartphone market.

  22. kibbles Says:

    except that its not. the 80s PC wars were very different than the mobile wars today. one big difference? despite the marketshare apple is now reaping the lion's share of profitshare. more so than any other handset maker.

  23. @taaos Says:

    Perhaps Apple is reaping their karma which they never really received for Mac OS competing with mDos and early buggy Windows… which both garnered the vast market share over them. In 2011 there's an ever so slight difference between current Windows and current Mac OS, but in the late 80s to late 90s, the difference between the two OS were like night and day. For ease-of-use; non bugs; and operational quality… if you go back 15 years, the two OSs were worlds apart.

  24. Rich Wells Says:

    Another huge difference is developer support. Apple struggled with getting developers at times with Mac OS, but they are now the clear winner in developer interest in the mobile wars.

  25. Mike Cerm Says:

    To hear one of the loudest voices in the sycophantic, pro-Apple media, John Gruber, claim that other manufacturers get a pass from reviewers is laughable. Every review I've read of the PlayBook and the Xoom has been harsh, but accurate, calling out each device for being unfinished, saying outright that despite the potential in the future, none is as good as the iPad.

    Also, someone should let Gruber know that the iPad, too, is far from perfect and deeply flawed (not that anyone in the media has described it as such). I would consider its lack of multitasking, coupled with Apple's STILL completely broken notification system, to be a significant deficiency in the platform. Is it the best tablet out there? Yeah, for sure, but even the iPad isn't really all that great.

    Personally, I think the whole tablet market sucks right now. Honeycomb and the PlayBook are half-baked, and the iPad is a fully-baked, giant iPod Touch. If you must buy a tablet, get an iPad, but most people should just stay away.

  26. Lloyd Says:

    The iPad has multitasking courtesy of IOS 4. The notification system could be better; I'd like a backlit Home button blinking gently when the screen is off to get my attention. But these are far lesser things than battery life, crashing on Flash, etc.

  27. Mike Cerm Says:

    I'm aware of the "multitasking" in iOS, but it's limited. I think the limitations are mostly OK on the iPhone, but on a tablet device, which is supposed to be more capable, the limitations are not OK. For example, if I'm watching YouTube, and I switch over to my email, it kills the video instead of continuing to play the audio in the background. Not cool.

    Everything about the notification system sucks. If your home button were flashing, where would you go to find out why? There's no central location, or on-screen display for queuing notifications. If you put your iOS on silent for an hour-long meeting, and in that span of time, you missed a phone call, you receive a text message, a calendar notification occurs, you receive emails in 2 different accounts, and someone sends you on Facebook, how are you supposed to know that all of these things happened? Android does it in the bar at the top of the screen, and WebOS does it at the bottom. iOS does… nothing.

    There are other problems with iOS, too, like having no user-accessible storage. Let's say you download a PDF of train schedules in Safari, and you want to save it so it's accessible when you're on the subway. You can't. Like everything else in iOS, I'm sure there's an app for that, but there shouldn't need to be an app for that. A powerful tablet computing device should have some ability to manage files.

  28. IOS Safari Says:

    You can save PDFs from Safari into iBooks or other third party software that reads PDF.

  29. Mike Cerm Says:

    Like I said, there's an app for that, but there shouldn't need to be. Also, you can't save a PDF from Safari into Dropbox, so obviously it's hit-or-miss. It shouldn't be this hard. There should just be a common storage area, which each app could read/write.

  30. kibbles Says:

    im pretty sure you can, courtesty of the latest Dropbox update. writing the "hooks" like that is part of the conuming-app's job, not apples.

  31. airmanchairman Says:

    This is the problem that those who practise "damnation with faint praise" encounter when criticising Apple products (or any other products for that matter) – the entire ecosystem is evolving continuously, often rendering previously "valid objections" moot.

    A little patience and foresight mixed into the visceral emotion would help put things in better perspective, and certainly a little less unhealthy rivalry ill-disguised as altruistic scientific disagreement

  32. @andrewinit Says:

    I think not playing YouTube audio in the background is a choice by Apple. Personally I think it's a sensible choice as when I watch a video I normally want to concentrate on it solely. The multitasking system is certainly capable of playing audio in the background. In fact the YouTube App can already do it if you go into multitasking bar and press the play button.

  33. Mike Cerm Says:

    Just because you normally only watch videos while concentrating solely on them doesn't mean that everyone should be required to. If I'm watching a video podcast of people sitting around and talking, I'm mostly paying attention to the audio anyway. I frequently do other things will watching video on my PC. I would like to have this same ability on a tablet device.

  34. kadams Says:

    You can download the video podcast from iTunes and play it in the background if you like.

  35. Paul Says:

    Doesn't work that way, any video content stops when you return to the home-screen – Apple's assumption is that if you don't want to watch video, then why should the audio continue as well.

    Most pod-casters that I follow that offer video offer an audio only version as well but I operate under the assumption that If I am watching video, that it is going to consume all of my resources.

  36. David Says:

    But everyone doesn't feel that way. Average people I would argue don't care if they can watch a 2" video while checking email.
    Multitasking is not a feature that average consumers care about. They want to listen to music and browse. I would argue that Apple researched the matter and their analysis turned out to be spot on.

    Supporting edge cases is no way to run a business.

  37. Mike Cerm Says:

    I accept that resources on a phone are limited, but a tablet should do more than just duplicate the functionality of a smartphone. (Especially a tablet which costs more than a laptop.)

  38. jrs Says:

    What exactly is your point? Because you seem to be disagreeing with Gruber & talking out of both sides of your arse to win an argument you are completely wrong about. These devices cost just as much or more than an iPad & have plenty more shortcomings. That's the facts, They should be judged on a level playing field. If they are not the reviewer has a bias. Much like yourself.

  39. Mike Cerm Says:

    My initial point was that the reviews of the PlayBook and the Xoom have been universally negative, but fair and accurate, and that Gruber's complaints that they're not negative enough is just silly. I agree that these devices are is that these devices are bad, Gruber fails to grasp that the iPad is also a flawed device, unworthy of the universal acclaim it receives from people like himself.

    If I had to choose between an iPad and a PlayBook or Xoom, obviously I'd choose the iPad. The overall experience is better. I understand why many people are buying iPads. However, just like the PlayBook or the Xoom, I don't think that an iPad is a worthwhile purchase for most people. Since really all it does is duplicate the functionality of the iPhone/iPod Touch, if you've already got one of those, you might as well save your money.

  40. avatar139 Says:

    I don't Gruber thinks that the iPad is perfect, but since it's better than everything else out there currently why are you surprised that it receives the "universal acclaim that it does?"

    I guess my view is that if you really are hoping to foster competition against the iPad you should actually be supporting more negative reviews as they're the best way to further that goal by putting pressure on the (generally) clueless management of these companies pressuring them into making the realization that you can't just rush through a knock-off device if you want to try to compete with Apple in the tablet arena, but you actually have to put money, time and effort into the OS design and ease of use of the device that you make!

    While the iPad certainly "duplicates the functionality of the iPhone/iPod Touch" at least it doesn't require you to already have an iPhone to be able to use it's core features, unlike the Playbook which requires a BlackBerry in order to use a lot of core functionality that should be available to non-corporate users who are naturally reluctant to try to use a BlackBerry without an IT department supporting their efforts! 😉

  41. AdamC Says:

    You sure iOS didn't tell you that you missed a call or whatever perhaps you have never use an iPhone before. it figures.

  42. @taaos Says:

    My tablet experience from the past two years confirms what you state. I have bought and sold several cheap Android tablets. All turned-out to be 'beta hardware' and definite time-wasters! I spent more time searching forums; tweaking settings; reinstalling the firmware; etc, etc, than actually using and enjoying the devices. I finally broke-down recently and bought an iPad. Guess what?? The thing actually does what it's supposed to! It is night and day better than any of the Android tablets I used.

    Android fanatics claim that if I had purchased a Xoom instead of cheap tablets I wouldn't have had these issues. Their argument doesn't hold water. The Xoom is an expensive device (who said Apple costs too much?), it's OS is quite buggy; it has special features that don't even work; and it's features that do work still aren't up to the iPad's standards. I know… I handled both the Xoom and the iPad before making a decision.. even though I had 18 months experience with Android, the iPad was still a much better overall experience!!

    My only fear is that in the same vein as Windows VS Mac, the inferior system will once again win out. This will be due to misinformation (most coming from anti-Apple groups) and from eventual lower prices compared to the Apple side. You end-up getting what you pay for in the long run.

  43. David Says:

    The problem with the beta hardware is that they are charging full price. Sell the Playbook or the Rim for 50% off if it is feature incomplete.

  44. gwilm Says:

    The review:,8599,…

  45. gwilm Says:

    Ooops! The review is here:,8599,…

  46. @taaos Says:

    In the past two years, there's basically only been two tablets which haven't been beta (if you don't count the various Windows XP/7 tablets) and those are the two iPads. Disagree with me if you dare, but my statement only means that the two iPads are fully functioning, stable, and do not require any updates upon purchase. There has not been one single Android which can make such a claim… including those little tablets which appeared on the scene before the iPad was launched.

    I should know… I am a victim of several non-publicized beta releases (yep… I really am dumb enough to not learn my lesson after the first). At least my iPad works flawlessly!

  47. Fred Says:

    The original iPad, released with version 3.x of the iOS software, absolutely required updates to be fully functional.

  48. Steve Setzer Says:

    Disagree. I got my iPad v1, running iOS 3.x, about 2 months after the initial release (waiting for corporate approval on the security). I used that machine for real work from day one — designing million dollar software deployment architectures in OmniGraffle, reviewing RFPs in GoodReader, writing proposal text in Pages, controlling servers via VNC and Terminal Services. I only upgraded to 4.x two months ago, and that was just so I could participate in beta app distributions through TestFlightApp. It absolutely was fully functional for this road warrior with the original software.

  49. Anon Says:

    Having read your "actual" review, I think Gruber's comments are on target, even including that piece: "… the PlayBook provides some serious hardware muscle…" "Some solid software comes preloaded on the PlayBook…" "Still, almost everything that's lacking stems from software shortcomings. RIM will surely squash at some of the bugs I encountered."

    Objectivity is not measured by listing an equal number of pros and cons. Objectivity is not a product of giving equal time to a products good and bad points. Objectivity is about finding and reporting the truth. (A point that political journalists ought to take to heart as well.) And the truth is that these "other tablets" are a complete waste of money and deserved nothing but being trashed in reviews.

    And that's not what's happening in your, Mossberg's, or pretty much any reviewer's writing on these other tablets. Instead, as Gruber rightly points out, you are all "bending over backwards" to give equal time to the good and the bad, so that, in the end, based solely on reading your reviews, one comes away with the impression that these other tablets, "aren't quite as good as the iPad 2, but they aren't bad." An impression that is a disservice to your readers, and makes a mockery of the concept of objectivity.

  50. Harry McCracken Says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mention things I liked about the PlayBook in a misguided attempt at objectivity or bending over backwards to give equal time. I mentioned them because I liked them. Despite the fact that so many things about the PlayBook are so very bad, as I also mentioned. And I didn’t say it wasn’t quite as good as the iPad: I said it was in no shape to be seen in public, that I wouldn’t buy one, and that the iPad is the only non-experimental tablet.

    Anyone who’s actually tried the PlayBook is free to come to different conclusions than mine–and we’re not talking objectivity or “truth” here, because reviews are inherently subjective.


    My take on the PlayBook after having used it

    I began the re

  51. CndnRschr Says:

    Unless you have a BlackBerry OS6 device, the PlayBook is severely crippled (notwithstanding the limited availability of BlackBerry Bridge software from various BlackBerry app stores). Do people understand this? In the weekly flyers I get, the PlayBook features prominently on the ones from BestBuy, FutureShop, Staples and even Sears. How many people will buy these and return them when they discover the limitations? iPad2 availability is still poor and sporadic and many people will assume the PlayBook does the same job. I guess those that haven't done their homework will soon find out. BTW, my family has three BlackBerrys (Bold, Curve and a Torch but only the latter will run OS6 reasonably).

  52. Fred Says:

    Gruber says "The mass market doesn’t buy, and doesn’t want to buy, products based on what they might become months from now if these companies somehow dramatically improve the software." That's just not true – plenty of people bought the original iPhone on the assumption that the myriad missing features would be fixed in software updates. Now that iDevices are the market leaders, Apple's defenders have changed approach, and no longer buy into the theory that a device's potential is a relevant consideration.

  53. Albert Says:

    And I would argue that most people bought into the iPhone for what it could do out of the box, with the future potential being the lagniappe.

  54. Scruff Says:

    > plenty of people bought the original iPhone on the assumption that the myriad missing features would be fixed in software updates.
    Hmmm, can you show your sources please? Other than MMS (which _stopped_ a number of my fellow workers from buying an iPhone), I can't think of a single non Apple nerd who purchased an iPhone in the hope that a future software update would 'fix' a missing feature.

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  58. Munchygut Says:

    This reminds me of the days in the '90s when MS would:

    Push an unfinished product out the door to meet self-imposed deadlines/release dates.

    Log all of the complaints/bugs called into tech support.

    Log all of the complaints/bugs reported in the trade rags.

    Release a Service Pack that fix as many of the problems as possible before the next self-imposed deadline.


    It's called "product testing in the field". A concept that seems to be living on in current technology.

  59. avatar139 Says:

    Speaking as someone who was in charge of managing/configuring/wrestling our company's Developer Pre-Release versions of Vista on test machines prior to it coming out, I can assure you the practice you've described in no way stopped in the '90s as far M$ is concerned, LOL!

  60. Rich Wells Says:

    Android licensees are not a team. They compete against each other just as much as they compete against Apple. To add up all the Android licensees' market shares and compare them to Apple's is just stupid. It was stupid when people did it with Windows vs. Mac OS back in the day and it's stupid now, probably more so because Apple now has much stronger developer support then they did in the early days of the PC vs. Mac war. Each licensee is fighting for a percentage of market share and trying to make higher profit. Not one Android licensee has outsold Apple. And even if you add up all Android licensees Android profits, they pale in comparison to Apple's iOS device profits. Even if Android's market share is now higher, does that mean Android is winning? Remember, they're not a team and Apple makes more profit then all of them combined. Even calling Google a winner over Apple is debatable because you cannot determine how much money they are making from mobile advertising on Android from published information. And even if you could, Google is leveraging Android for advertising and search and Apple makes money through iTunes. I doubt you could call Google a clear winner either.

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