The BlackBerry Playbook is sad not because it sucks. Quite the contrary, actually. It’s sad because the PlayBook is so affordable, with hardware components that trump all its similarly priced competitors, and a platform that is better than Apple’s iOS in various ways. And yet, it didn’t sell well.
What exactly went wrong? I was given a 16GB PlayBook for free for winning a silly game at a PlayBook OS 2.0 media event. And for the past few days, I have been using it rather extensively.
The first thing I can say is Apple lied. iOS is not the world’s most advanced operating system. It’s functional, and happens to be elegant, but there is still much to learn from the PlayBook, an underdog in the tablet realm.
The first iPhone is undoubtedly responsible for most of today’s button-less mobile devices. Yet, it’s still not possible to operate an iPhone or an iPad without the use of physical buttons. The PlayBook has no home button. Everything is gesture-based, from quitting an app, switching from one app to another, waking the screen, putting it to standby, ect. Double-clicking the home button on an iDevice to bring up the multitasking bar is primitive, by comparison.
Plus, in order to change a setting on an iDevice, you have to dive into Settings. While this may make sense, it gets annoying if you have to switch something on and off multiple times a day. I turn off 3G when I’m home and turn off Wi-Fi when I hit the road, so there has to be a better way than jumping in and out of the Settings just to do something that mundane.
On the PlayBook, the status bar allows you to change all these settings out of box. You can easily read notifications, switch Wi-Fi or/and Bluetooth on and off, adjust the screen’s brightness, lock screen orientation, or even restart, stand by, lock or turn off the device. Whatever you want to do, you can achieve it within two taps, tops, all from the home screen itself.
It’s little things like this that shapes the user experience on a mobile device. At this point, you might think that I’m in love with my PlayBook already. I’m not. Far from it.
There’s no app for that
“There’s an app for that,” is one of the very few claims made by Apple that I wouldn’t laugh at. Coming from iOS, I took apps availability for granted. More often than not, apps are developed first for iOS, and later to Android. The PlayBook simply doesn’t have Skype, official Twitter client, Netflix, or Kindle.
Wait, why would RIM include a front camera if it wouldn’t do any video calls? It will, with its propriety video chat service, but it will only work among PlayBook owners. It wouldn’t even support BlackBerry smartphones. Basically it’s good for nothing if you’re the only PlayBook owner within your sphere.
With the PlayBook OS 2.0 update, the PlayBook can now run Android apps, which could theoretically solve the app shortage problem. RIM made it rather easy for developers to repackage their Android apps for the PlayBook, to save them the effort of writing native apps from scratch. But even so, only a small fraction of Android developers went on-board. Android Central’s blog post reveals their sentiment.
All is not lost, as it’s also possible to repackage Android apps yourself, and sideload it to your PlayBook with developer mode on, all without jailbreaking or rooting the device. But there is plenty of work to be done before you can get started. It’s just not worth the trouble for the average Joe.
An easier way would be to download Android apps that are already converted by someone else. All you have to do is to hunt the apps from various sources, download it to your computer, and sideload it to your PlayBook using a special software.
Some of them don’t work as expected, while some work even better than their native counterparts. The experience is rather inconsistent. But that’s not the point. The point is you have to work hard to get apps onto your PlayBook. It doesn’t just work.
And when you think about it, the apps that are available on Android are only a fraction of that on iOS. And only a fraction of that is optimized for tablets, the rest are oversized smartphone apps. And, only a fraction of that will work on the PlayBook.
All in all, we still have a very limited set of apps that are available on the PlayBook, and it takes more effort than necessary to download and install them.
Content is King
I love the user interface of the PlayBook, but ultimately, I spend most of my time in an app, not on the home screen fiddling around. Without a healthy selection of apps, it doesn’t matter anymore whether you have the world’s best operating system. WebOS is a great example.
It’s often touted as one of the best mobile operating system around due to its fluidity and excellent multitasking capability — praises that I wouldn’t hesitate to attribute to the PlayBook. Yet, Hewlett-Packard pulled the plug less than two months after the TouchPad went on sale.
It’s not a question of what it is. It’s a question of what can I do with it. Apple understands this. In all of Apple’s commercials, it shows life examples of what could be done with its devices, because that is all that matters. You can brag all you want about the specs sheet or the platform’s built-in features, but ultimately, if I can’t do anything with it, I wouldn’t buy it.
Granted, after strolling on CrackBerry’s forum, there are many people who genuinely love their PlayBooks. Advantages of the PlayBook I see include the excellent flash-enabled browser, LED notification light and the BlackBerry Bridge, a feature that’s of no use to me since I don’t own a BlackBerry smartphone.
However, there are so much more to be done in order to capture customers beyond the existing BlackBerry user base. The PlayBook will not have an equal fighting chance if RIM fails to solve the Catch-22 situation.