RIM updates PlayBook software, but big gaps remain

Research In Motion has a new software update available for BlackBerry PlayBook devices that adds in-app purchase support, improves some existing apps, such as Facebook, and can even give a boost to music playback. Version 1.0.5 of the tablet’s operating system can be downloaded and installed on existing PlayBooks (s rimm) today; customers purchasing a new PlayBook after today will be prompted with the update upon device setup. While welcome, the enhancements are minor when compared to what the PlayBook really needs: More applications and native support for email without a BlackBerry phone.

Among the features and updates in the 312 MB software download:

  • Facebook is pre-loaded in this version, so it becomes a pre-installed application for all PlayBooks; going forward, device owners won’t have to download Facebook from the BlackBerry App World. The software gains video uploads, message deletion, access to Pages, and the ability to choose photo albums when uploading images.
  • In-app payment support arrives in PlayBook applications, which provides additional revenue streams to developers. In turn, the potential revenue could attract more developers to the platform over time, given that other mobile platforms, iOS (s aapl), Android (s goog), and even BlackBerry smartphones, already offer this feature.
  • The PlayBook can now be charged while powered down and the device will alert if an incompatible charger is attached. Tapping the battery indicator on the device offers three choices: restart, power off, and standby mode, plus a method to adjust screen brightness.
  • Five additional languages are supported: French, Italian, Dutch, German, Spanish, and U.K. English.
  • Video chat between a public network and firewalled enterprise network is enhanced through support for the TURN (Traversal Using Relay NAT) protocol.
  • Automatic Wi-Fi hotspot detection is improved for connecting during the set-up process.
  • Headsets gain an audio boost for increased volume.
All of the updates are welcome, but clearly this is a minor release, evidenced by the version number itself. The new features and tweaks are what I’d expect from an already mature device, but for many the PlayBook still has two large gaping holes and these updates address neither.

First, the breadth of solid software applications is still lacking, although new titles are being added to the BlackBerry App World. In March, RIM announced plans to address that with a software emulator which can run Google Android applications, but that solution still isn’t available. And even when it does arrive, PlayBook owners won’t have access to the more than 200,000 Android Market applications, since RIM will curate compatible applications.

Second, and possibly a bigger issue, is the lack of a native email client for the PlayBook; the tablet still requires a BlackBerry handset to power the email system. I’ve been using the web for email on the device and that certainly works, but it’s not optimal. Instead of an email application with push notifications, I have to jump in my browser session and look for new messages. Last month, RIM showed off a native email client, but doesn’t expect it to arrive until sometime in the next three months.

I still think there’s much to like about the PlayBook: The operating system is intuitive, the device is a champ at multitasking; gesture support is stellar; and the browsing experience is outstanding. Those are all qualities I’d look for in a 7-inch tablet, but they’re not all I’d look for. And I suspect potential tablet buyers are looking for more as well.

Things might be different for the PlayBook had it been introduced 12 to 18 months prior. Instead of trying to catch up to Apple’s iPad lead, the device could instead be a top seller by comparison. But Apple is moving forward with iOS 5 by bringing new features and enhancements. It can do this because it nailed down key basics first — a different strategy than the one RIM is taking.