PlayBook 2.0: Is This the Best RIM Can Do?

UPDATE: On about the 10th try, I finally got both the personal hosted and corporate Exchange accounts working. I have no idea why the setup failed repeatedly and an identically setup eventually worked. I’m hoping for some explanation from RIM.


If any evidence is still needed that one-time leader Research In Motion has become hopelessly uncompetitive in the mobile computing market, there’s no need to look any further than the BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 software. Its flaws are not only enough to leep it from gaining traction in the tablet market, but  bode very ill for the next generation of BlackBerry handsets based on the BlackBerry 10 operating system.

PlayBook screen shotThe relatively few folks who bought the PlayBook have been waiting patiently for nearly a year for a software update that would make the 7″ tablet usable. The version 2.0 software takes them about halfway there, not remotely good enough in a world where Adroid tablets are steadily improving and Apple is readying a new version of the iPad that will doubtless increase its already huge lead over the competition.

The most surprising thing is RIM’s failure to get messaging even close to right. The PlayBook has finally gotten a native mail app, meaning it now longer must be connected to a BlackBerry handset through the Bridge app. The trouble is that the mail app isn’t very good.

PlayBook mail does not work with RIM’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server for corporate mail, contacts, and calendar. For that, you still need to use Bridge. In theory, it can connect to Microsoft Exchange accounts and I know who users who have done so. But I ran into repeated failure connecting the PlayBook to either a corporate Exchange account or a personal hosted Exchange account (picture), both accounts that I have set up on iPhones with no difficulty.

The standard internet mail is also sorely deficient. I was able to set up an IMAP mail account without trouble, but the PlayBook app displays only my inbox, not any of my folders. There is a separate Gmail app. but it turns out to be nothing more than a link to web Gmail.

BlackBerry Messenger, another signature RIM product,can also be used only with Bridge, although RIM promises that a native client will be available eventually. The PlayBook mail app can be set up to include Facebook mail and Twitter direct messages. But there is still no proper Twitter app for the tablet. That tantalizing Twitter icon on the home screen again proves just to be a browser link.

This is sorely disappointing, because the the PlayBook is an attractive piece of hardware, especially at the $199 (for the 16 MB version) fire sale price. It has an excellent user interface, reminiscent in some ways of the lamented Palm webOS, and excellent display, and good battery life.

The lack of third-party apps is a serious problem, but the real issue is RIM’s failure to deliver proper messaging. From its beginnings, BlackBerry has meant messaging and this remains its fundamental selling proposition. Without world-class mail or BlackBerry Messenger, the PlayBook simply has no competitive advantages and many  drawbacks.

Worse is what appears to be the reason for PlayBook communications deficiencies. BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry Enterprise Server were designed to work with the peculiar software environment of the Java-based BlackBerry OS. RIM has never successfully ported these services to other OSes and it looks like they are having no success bringing it QNX, the RIM-owned OS at the heart of both the PlayBook and BlackBerry 10. That leaves the BlackBerry reliant on Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync for enterprise mail. Even disregarding my unfortunate experience, Exchange ActiveSync is something Apple  already does really well, though Android still needs either OEM modifications or third-party software to handle it. If this is the best RIM can do nearly a year after the original release of the PlayBook, I’m afraid they have run out of time.