PlayBook Reviews Vary, but Share an “Unfinished” Vibe

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BlackBerry PlayBook reviews hit the web last night, ranging in tone from cautiously optimistic to skeptical about launching the device with no standalone email client. Our own review from Om appears to be among the former camp. He finds the hardware is surprisingly good and the interface solid. However, a lack of third-party application support could hold back sales.

Obviously, device reviews will vary based on the reviewer’s perspective, but there are a number of common themes across the dozen or so PlayBook examinations: the general app scarcity and missing features coming later.

Walt Mossberg from the Wall Street Journal comments on BlackBerry Bridge — a phone-tethering solution for email and other core apps — suggesting it will limit the PlayBook’s potential audience:

This odd system, aimed at pleasing security-concerned corporate customers, doesn’t work with other smartphones. So, in my view, even though Bridge is a neat technical feat, it makes the PlayBook a companion to a BlackBerry phone rather than a fully independent device. That may be fine for dedicated BlackBerry owners, but it isn’t so great for people with other phones.

Research In Motion is planning a software update this summer to add standalone email, calendar and messaging apps to the PlayBook, but for now, it’s either use a supported BlackBerry phone or limit yourself to web-based productivity. Releasing the tablet without these apps puts the PlayBook at a feature-based disadvantage to Apple’s iPad and Google Android tablets. Competing devices just have more software options available in general. Engadget’s Tim Stevens puts it this way:

Overall, the selection in App World and on the device itself is rather limited at the moment. RIM is quick to point out that there are thousands of apps in the pipeline, written in some combination of Adobe AIR or HTML 5 or Java or within the PlayBook’s native compilation engine. We’re sure they’re coming, but right now it’s slim pickins.

One could argue Android Honeycomb tablets face the same issue. The situation is slightly different for a few reasons, however. Honeycomb tablets can run any of the existing Android Market apps. Some may scale nicely on the big screen while others may not, but there are apps to choose from. And RIM is releasing the PlayBook without the recently announced Android App Player software, which allows the PlayBook to potentially run tens of thousands of Android apps. Getting the App Player on the device at release could have gained PlayBook more momentum.

Laptop Magazine’s Mark Spoonauer notes the missing apps and core features add to the feeling that RIM needs more time to get things together for a more compelling experience:

It’s not really a matter of too little, too late with the BlackBery PlayBook. If anything, RIM’s first tablet feels as if it was rushed to market. The PlayBook has a well-designed interface and plenty of power under the hood for serious multitasking. The sharp screen, high-quality cameras, and loud speakers all impress as well. However, the software was buggy during testing, there’s no video chat option yet, and App World just doesn’t have a lot of compelling options right now.

Spoonauer’s first thought may be the more important one, because there’s no end in sight to the tablet wars. Is the “winner” the one that sells the most tablets this year, or will the market continue to grow over time as we enter a “post-PC” era? The latter scenario is far more likely and illustrated in our GigaOM Pro tablet forecast (subscription required), which means RIM’s unfinished PlayBook has time to reach completion. That’s why I chose Sascha Segan’s review as the final one here, because it illustrates a long-term view. The PlayBook in its current form is far from perfect, but Segan smartly thinks about the big picture, saying:

This operating system is nothing like the previous BlackBerry OS, and it will share many of its components with the upcoming BlackBerry 7 for smartphones. The user interface of the QNX-based OS looks great, but it’s missing basic apps, and currently suffers from a confusing SDK strategy. There’s plenty of potential and a lot of good news here, though. This OS is light years ahead of the 1990s-era Java environment you see on current BlackBerry phones. And this isn’t Symbian, which is so barnacled with the encrustations of the past that it can’t move forward. This is a beginning.

Segan points out what many are overlooking with the PlayBook: Aside from being the first tablet for RIM, the device sets the stage for what to expect from future BlackBerry handsets as the company transitions away from its old operating system. That type of transition takes years, not weeks or months.

In that light, when you consider that RIM only purchased QNX last April and built the PlayBook on the new platform, the company has accomplished much in the last 12 months. Unfortunately, it may take another six to 12 months before RIM truly begins to recoup that investment in the PlayBook, which still needs some work.

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